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Scott Wilson: Nurturing Future Generations of Jazz Musicians

Scott Wilson: Nurturing  Future Generations of Jazz Musicians

Courtesy Mikhail Fomin

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Some instructors—and I do not mean any disrespect towards them because they have their own sets of skills— go from academia to academia to a doctorate, and then they go right back into academia. They never had to fend for themselves in the real world to know what skills they needed to put food on the table because it would completely change their approach to teaching and what they offer to the students. I think, no teacher should be hired in the university till they spend at least five years in the industry on their own.
—Scott Wilson
Scott Wilson is a performer, educator, and composer. He worked at Grand Link World Theme Park in Qingdao, China, at Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan, and at Tokyo Disney Sea, among other places around the world. Having many years of experience in the music industry, he has stepped into teaching jazz.

Wilson has authored multiple publications with Kendall Hunt Publishing, including Ultimate Jazz Tool Kit and Ultimate Jazz Workbook. His four online platforms (Jazz Fundamentals 1, Jazz Fundamentals 2, Jazz Aural Skills, and Jazz History) are available nationwide for educators. He has been a guest artist, clinician, committee member, and adjudicator for various events and festivals, such as Walt Disney World's Magic Music Days Program, Crescent Jazz Festival, Juilliard Jazz Workshops, Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Camp at the University of Florida, Gainesville Jazz Festival, HAPCO for the Arts, Universal Studios Orlando Fest, JENerations Jazz Festival at the Jazz Education Network international conferences, and others.

From break dancing to jazz

Before falling in love with jazz, Wilson was obsessed with breakdancing. In 1985, he became the world champion breakdancer in the competitions held by the American Youth on Parade.

"I was living on my own at the time when I was in high school. The only thing I had in my house was a boombox and linoleum. All my friends were always over, and we were practicing to win competitions. I got into breakdancing competitions because I needed to make money to pay rent. So, I got into breakdancing to make a living. Back in the '80s, these competitions paid $250, and I could go to them one after another and make great money for myself and the members of my performance groups. This was a necessity since my mother was single, did not make much money as a waitress and could not support me."

Upon entering college as a vocal major, Wilson started to hang out with jazz musicians through the professional music fraternity he was pledging, Phi Mu Alpha. To get into the fraternity, some of the members required him to transcribe jazz solos for their signatures. Having never done that before, Wilson went to his friend's house to learn this craft. His friend, Dave Becker, was playing The Cannonball Adderley Quintet Live at the Lighthouse (Riverside, 1960) that he had transcribed. That experience changed Wilson's life and made him want to explore jazz.

"I was supporting myself. I had no parental support. I could see that jazz musicians were working at Disney college bands and the Disney seasonal bands—so that could provide year-round income here and there, playing for Christmas, Easter, etc. I needed income and thought that was a cool way to earn it."

During his freshman year, Wilson started taking trumpet lessons. He bought his first jazz album and, in his sophomore year, he started preparing for the Disney auditions. He did not make it to Disney on the first attempt, but he did the second time when he was a junior in college. For his graduate degree, Wilson dropped the vocal major and focused on playing the trumpet. At this point, he had valuable experience in dance, vocal, and instrumental groups and this later would prove valuable to his future positions.

Favorite musicians and albums

For Wilson, jazz means a lifestyle. His musical influences are numerous. One of them is Freddie Hubbard. When Wilson was younger, people could hear his strong influence from Hubbard. One of his other idols is Chet Baker. Wilson spent his earlier career imitating Baker's singing. Baker's trumpet solos taught him a lot of guide-tone melodies. Among other influences, Wilson mentions Lee Morgan, Marcus Printup, and Nicholas Payton, yet Hubbard always stays Wilson's favorite. He considers Hubbard's Hub Tones (Blue Note, 1962) the best album. Wilson enjoys the sassiness and variety in this album. His next favorite is Woody Shaw's Solid (Muse, 1987).

"Woody Shaw's approach to the trumpet is so different and so angular, and I learned a lot. I thought it was magic. When I transcribed his solos, I realized that he was harmonically purposeful. That was a reason why he sounded so good."

When it comes to piano, Wilson enjoys Herbie Hancock for his versatility and crossover between jazz, gospel, early rap, and hard bop. Ironically, Wilson discovered Hancock's music through "Rockit" during his earlier years of breakdancing yet had no idea that it was written by a jazz musician.

Composing and arranging

Wilson oftentimes reflects on how the traditional curriculum does not help students to compose for the mainstream which is why many school-trained composers are penniless. Music theory, he says, is so heavily based on outdated part-writing rules, which lock one's creativity within rules that are rarely used anymore. As an alternative, Wilson suggests first teaching students how to write popular music and commercial jazz.

"I have no idea why we do not start with pop songwriting where people can have instant success with three chords. If we did, maybe someone in our classmates would write the next iconic pop tune."

At first, Wilson did not consider composition as an avenue because it seemed to be so hard with all the "classical" theory rules. Later, he took an arranging course at the University of North Texas and started writing jazz pieces. He found it was somewhat easy to study music scores to learn how to write in a specific style.

Soon, Wilson got his first tune "In the Swamp" recorded for the University of North Texas One O'clock Lab band album. After that, he wrote the piece "In Retrospect," for the fiftieth-anniversary reunion. Later, he wrote "The Santa Maria," a tune with a Spanish flavor. After graduation from UNT, he was planning to quit composing and only play trumpet for a living, but suddenly he got an invitation from China to work as a composer and play trumpet in a Dixieland bebop group. That is where he became a composer 24/7.

"I was never a writer like a lot of people who write for fun. I never did any of that. I always wrote for money. If I was going to put the pencil down, I was going to be paid for this bar of music."

While at the end of each day his music friends could come home and just relax and explore the country, Wilson always had to compose music for another show. That became tiresome and, at some point, he decided that he wanted to spend more time performing. He started taking only playing gigs, yet he would write for his shows.

Wilson's published an album of his original compositions Kackle Jackle (Self Published, 2014). Since then, he has done several recordings and many as a sideman, yet his work in academia as the only full-time jazz professor at the University of Florida takes most of his time. He hopes that, eventually, he will be able to adjust the faculty job so that it will allow him to do more creative projects. He wants to write funk crossover jazz because he is not interested in recreating something from before.

Performance

Before being a college educator, Wilson worked in many music venues, including Universal Studios Orlando, Florida (2001-2004). Much of his time back then was spent performing.

"I was playing enough that, when I would pull my horn out, I was always warmed up. I did not have to warm up or anything because I was playing so much. I remember that. It was a great time in my performance career to have that feeling of just being able to pull the trumpet out the case and go."

In addition to trumpet, Wilson plays with virtuosity the EVI (Electronic Valve Instrument) and piano. Back in the time when he did not yet have a great range on the trumpet, he saw in the EVI an opportunity to be able to practice as many hours as he wanted to, even during the nighttime.

"It was a way of practicing and not disturbing the neighbors, and a way to put way more hours into practice time than an average trumpet player—because I had the EVI. I did notice later in my career that I could bebop way better than most trumpet players, even the ones that were my idols when it came down to fast tempos. I attribute it a lot to the EVI."

Playing piano came to Wilson out of necessity when there were not enough keyboard players in Gainesville to cover all the new jazz gigs that were created. He was embarrassed at first because he had problems with comping and locking in with the rhythm section. But after many hours of practicing, he became solid at playing the piano. He attributes his success on the piano to his knowledge of jazz theory. Another secret to success is blindfolded practice. In two hours of blindfolded practice, he can achieve more than in five hours of regular practice.

"You hear so much more when the sight is off, hands down, and in thirty minutes the visual cortex, a part of the brain, just shuts off. And then, I am hearing things I have never heard before."

Blindfolded piano practice helped Wilson to reach a higher level of technique. Now he is a competitive pianist and plays in several projects. He is also able to play examples in the classroom on the piano, as opposed to showing them just on the trumpet.

The longer Wilson worked in the music industry, the more he wanted other musicians to have access to the same performance experience that he has had, and that is why he has been working on creating life-changing opportunities for others. In 2021, he put together and coordinated four jazz series in Gainesville, FL, and surrounding areas to help his students learn to be headliners and develop their shows: Hippodrome Theatre Jazz Series, The Keys Jazz Series, The Lake Wauburg Jazz Series, and The Ocala Jazz Series. Just those series alone have resulted in over seventy jazz concerts per year, giving jazz musicians in the area enough income to stay in town after they graduate.

"When I first got to Gainesville, musicians just graduated and would leave. They would never even consider staying here and living here. Now there is enough work here. You got the jazz series, and there are over twenty venues in town with jazz and commercial music. I think I played a big role in that and developing a community that values live jazz."

Education

After graduating from the University of North Texas in 1997 with two master's degrees, in Music Education and Jazz Studies, Wilson was certain that he would never go back into academia. He was determined to work in the music industry, which he did for many years. At some point, he realized that he wanted to pass on his experience, so in 2004 he ended up getting a teaching job at Snow College (Ephraim, UT). That was a drastic change for him to come from a big city with a developed entertainment industry to a town with one stoplight. Wilson thought it was the death of his career, yet it ended up being the smartest decision he had ever made. At Snow College, a primarily Mormon community, he had one of the best jazz bands of his career.

"These kids worked so hard. They had, above all, a better attitude than most people I have met in the world. They had no problem taking instruction, no matter how it is given to them. They were just solid, and jazz made that town a fun place to live."

After five years of Wilson being the Director of Jazz Studies at Snow College, his jazz program was ranked the number one two-year jazz program by the Juilliard School of Music. He remembers working at Snow College as a great time.

"At a small community college, you could make curriculum changes easily. In a big university, you have these gigantic wheels to turn, maybe fifty faculty to sway, and all these bloated processes."

In 2010, Wilson received a job offer at the University of Florida, his alma mater. He almost did not take it and was ready to go to Universal Studios Japan as the Musical Director, yet he went to Florida instead and has never regretted it. He considers education a great place to be after you gained enough practical experience in the music field, yet not before that.

"Some instructors—and I do not mean any disrespect towards them because they have their own sets of skills—go from academia to academia to a doctorate, and then they go right back into academia. They never had to fend for themselves in the real world to know what skills they needed to put food on the table because it would completely change their approach to teaching and what they offer to the students. I think, no teacher should be hired in the university till they spend at least five years in the industry on their own."

Wilson considers that if instructors would be hired after they have enough experience in the field, it would benefit the music industry. It would also help to build certain personality traits in a musician that are required to be able to survive in the industry.

"What I saw in the real entertainment industry, is this growth emotionally that a lot of other people never got. It creates personality traits within yourself that you learn from people that are successful at it. They treat people well or they do not get work. They treat the janitors as they treat the top composer celebrity coming in. I think that is a little bit lost in academia where we have so many professors that go right from academia back into academia, and it is a closed bubble. They do not have to be team players; they do not have to get along with others and can stay in their castles, so to speak, and yet still make a great living from academia. In the commercial world, if you cannot be a team player and compromise for the greater good, you generally are not the cool people that get hired."

When Wilson came to work at the University of Florida in 2010, he only had to teach jazz history and direct a jazz band. Eventually, that work turned into nine courses that he developed for the Jazz Studies minor and the administer of the Master of Music with a concentration in Jazz Studies. With the growth of the program, he has had to be an administrator.

"[Program directors] administer all things: everything from budget proposals, to committees, to assignments for grads, to syllabi, to overseeing the classes, to constant training and paperwork, and it has become a full-encompassing administration job. So, I have been doing a lot more of that to make sure that I can put in place the type of classes that I think will change students' careers."

The Future of Jazz

Wilson makes sure his courses prepare students to step out the door of the college and immediately start working in the field. He helps students to develop their media, websites, bios, resumes, promotional materials, and recordings. He wants to equip students with practical skills that would make them visible in the competitive job market.

"They may know "Donna Lee" in three keys; they may be able to play "Cherokee" at [BPM] 400, but it is not going to help them when they get out the door to entertain the masses. So, trying to find classes that prepare students to make that transition smoothly is what my goal is, and putting in place in every class the opportunities for kids to gain that experience."

Providing jazz education to all music majors is something that Wilson wants to see more of. He believes whole-heartedly that jazz develops a mindset that allows one to work in any different music styles across the world.

"What jazz teaches you that other styles do not teach you, is how to play across the time—not with the time. When you can hear those intricacies in time, you can adapt to any style of music that you are hearing, pretty quickly. That is why jazz musicians who can cross over to commercial music are most successful. Country musicians, pop musicians, songwriters, engineers—you can go across the board, everywhere in the industry, and you are going to find jazz musicians that are making it happen."

When asked how music schools can better prepare students, Wilson thinks that, instead of separating classical and jazz curricula, music schools should teach them together as one and that jazz and commercial theory should be learned even before classical theory. He also considers improvisation a necessary skill for any music major.

"Regarding improvisation, I do not understand why all players are not required to improvise. All the players before us in classical music used to do classical improvisations at the end of the solo. And then we got classical teachers who had no idea how to do that and deemed it not important and as a result, we perpetuated that mindset to generations of students throughout the entire United States of America that improvisation was not important. Improvisation is how many composers got started. Bach, Mozart—they all were improvisers, which is why they are great writers."

As a member of the Business, Entrepreneurship, and Career Planning committee, Wilson helps to identify what career paths help students earn a living as a musician. He identifies their employers and brings them to campus. They tell the students what skills or qualities are needed to be hired in the industry. Among the most desired qualities in his students, Wilson seeks a positive attitude and hard work ethic.

"I can teach them all the skills, and nuts, and bolts: here is how you build a car, or here are the parts, or here is how you do that. But if they are not a mechanic everybody loves, nobody is going to go to their shop. I do not care if people practice as hard as me or listen to the same record I did, I do not care about any of that. I want to treat them like family and at times that does mean giving them some tough love as well. But it is then their choice and you let them do their thing or go down the path that interests them personally."

Wilson also values and helps students learn to be self-sufficient. Within his own program, he rarely has to ask the administration for money because the program is funded through the jazz royalties he has created and the donors he has been cultivating. That is rare in academia, and he is proud to be a financial asset to any organization he is part of. Funding himself is a major part of the way Wilson runs his life and he passes that on to his students.

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