Western Michigan University’s award-winning Gold Company is back, even though it never really went away.
The student jazz chorus, which has won more DownBeat student competition awards than any other college vocal group, has presented its “Miller Show,” a performance at Miller Auditorium, each February for decades. But the ensemble took last February off, as its new program director, Greg Jasperse, came on board. Jasperse replaced Steve Zegree, who left for Indiana University in 2012.
The hiatus gave Jasperse and the students of Gold Company time to design a new show, using up-to-date technology to create a performance that will be both musical and visual.
“If an audience can’t see what’s going on, they don’t know what to listen for,” Jasperse says.
While this year’s show, dubbed “Miller Show 2.0” and carrying the theme “From Brazil With Love,” isn’t until Feb. 14, Gold Company and its spinoff group, Gold Company II, will give audiences a Sneak Preview at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at Dalton Center Recital Hall, on the WMU campus.
“It will be the middle of winter in Michigan. It is music that’s going to make (audiences) feel good — bossa nova, samba, a really colorful presentation,” Jasperse says.
Student Sam al Hadid, a senior in his third year as a Gold Company performer, is one of the music producers for this year’s show. Al Hadid says what he most appreciates about Gold Company is the opportunity not only to arrange some of the best-known works in jazz, but, along with other students, to contribute original songs.
“It’s up to us to pick the music and write the actual (songs),” al Hadid says. “This is a highlight of the year, a time when we’re spending time together, staying active and engaged with our music.”
Gold Company was founded in the 1970s as the Varsity Vagabonds, a vocal jazz ensemble directed by Elwyn “Doc” Carter. In 1978, Zegree took Carter’s place, renaming the group Gold Company. Gold Company II, or GCII, was created in 1983. The reputation of both choruses has grown steadily, with performances before national and international gatherings of singers and music teachers. This year Gold Company features 13 vocalists, including al Hadid, four performers in the rhythm section on percussion and keyboard, and two sound technicians working behind the scenes.
Gold Company’s most prestigious event of its 2014-15 season is yet to come — in January, the group will perform on the main stage on the last night of the Jazz Education Network conference in San Diego. Gold Company has sung at the conference before, but never as a main-stage act.
“This is the center court, Wimbledon, of jazz,” Jasperse says.
Jasperse, who was a Gold Company member from 1990 to 1993 and graduated from WMU in ’93, was invited back to WMU after a career in Los Angeles singing on movie soundtracks and with musicians like Rosemary Clooney and Adele. He is not the first GC alum to go on to direct a top vocal jazz program, however. Kate Reid directs the University of Miami’s jazz vocal performance program, Jennifer Barnes directs vocal jazz studies at the University of North Texas, and Christine Guter directs vocal jazz at California State University, Long Beach.
Guter says her time in Gold Company was instrumental in her obtaining her position at Cal State. Guter was a music major at WMU when she first joined GC. She says she knew nothing about vocal jazz then, but Gold Company taught her how to perform with a group both on and off stage.
“All the fundamental things you need to know I learned there,” Guter says.
But for Gold Company members, it’s not just about singing. Jasperse is also teaching his students about the business side of music, including branding and self-promotion. He says that there is more to success at auditions than just singing well. Students need to show enthusiasm for themselves and for their performance. The audience at many jazz ensemble shows is other jazz musicians, who instinctively know what to listen for to spot a top-notch performance, Jasperse explains.
“The ensemble at a university often plays before a general audience, which doesn’t have that same knowledge. I teach them to interact with the band and the audience. I want to have people leave a concert more enlightened about jazz.”
Jasperse and current Gold Company members say performances like the Miller Show may be fun for the audience but mean much more to the students.
“They get an education they won’t get anywhere else and develop a network that will be with them the rest of their professional lives,” Jasperse says.