Monday nights at the Village Vanguard, New York’s premier jazz club, have been reserved for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra for over 30 years. Next Friday night, the Eastman Theatre will be reserved for a performance by the VJO’s current pianist and composer-in-residence, Jim McNeely.

The Eastman Jazz Ensemble and New Jazz Ensemble will join McNeely, heating up Kilbourn Hall with nine of Grammy Award nominee McNeely’s tunes.

McNeely will both conduct and play piano in Friday night’s performance. The musician, who spent a great deal of time in jazz capitols Chicago and New York City growing up, has had a long and immensely successful career.

“McNeely is a delight,” Larry Kart of the Chicago Tribune wrote. “Having stated his graceful ideas, [he] pursues them … until their prettiness has been burned away and what remains has the strength of structural steel.”

McNeely has worked with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and the Phil Woods Quintet, among others. McNeely is also an original composer and arranger for several big bands and is the permanent chief conductor of the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra.

Freshman trumpeter Dan Wright counts McNeely’s presence as the highlight of his upcoming concert experience. Wright, who will play with the New Jazz Ensemble, is excited to “get to play under a member of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.”

“That is definitely an honor,” Wright said.

The New Jazz Ensemble will open Friday’s concert, directed by Dave Rivello. The Eastman Jazz Ensemble will perform after intermission, directed ? for the last time ? by Fred Sturm, professor of Jazz and Contemporary Media.

“Bidding farewell to the 2001-2002 Eastman Jazz Ensemble ? the finest collegiate group I’ve ever directed ? will be tough,” Sturm said. This year marks the completion of Sturm’s 25th year of university jazz teaching.

He will move on to become the director of the jazz and improvisational music department at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, WI ? his undergraduate alma mater where, according to a recent press release issued by Eastman’s Public Relations division, Sturm started the school’s jazz ensemble as a 19-year-old student and eventually became its first jazz director.

Sturm isn’t alone in his admiration for the Eastman Jazz Ensemble. Last June, the group was named the best collegiate big band for the fourth time in six years by Down Beat Magazine.

Eastman touts one of the nation’s most well respected jazz programs. The Duke Ellington Legacy, Inc. selected Eastman as one of only nine schools across the country to premiere periodic new transcriptions that the Legacy has commissioned of some of Ellington’s early works. One such transcription, “Three Cent Stomp,” will be premiered Wednesday in a concert headed up by graduate students Ike Sturm and Brian Shaw. Their Jazz Lab Band will interpret this work, along with tunes by Count Basie, Bill Holman, Herbie Hancock and Bob Brookmeyer.

These two jazz concerts in Kilbourn Hall next week promise to heat things up even if Rochester’s weather can’t continue to deliver. Both performances are free and deserve to see houses packed like New York City’s Village Vanguard on Monday nights.

Weiss can be reached at

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