By Ahmed V. Ortiz
The players in Sacramento State’s Jazz Ensemble clamored as they took their respective places on stage. Moments later, Steve Roach, the University’s Jazz Program director, strode briskly to the front of the stage in the empty Music Recital Hall. The clamor faded as he faced his charges, his arrival having settled and focused them. For a moment, silence hung in the air.
Roach raised his arms to his side and began conducting the band that regularly garners national and regional awards and honors. Soon they were in “the pocket,” the musical sweet spot where individual musical parts settle into symbiosis, functioning as a single, seamless organism.
“I’ve never had that feeling outside of music,” said fourth-year student Sean Nelson, a percussionist, of experriencing the groove. “It’s something unique.”
“It’s like the first time you drove … but every time,” said bandmate Javier Ramirez, a senior and wind instrumentalist.
The firsts are becoming fewer and fewer for the program. It boasts a vocal jazz group, the C-Sus Voices, that has been named the nation’s top university ensemble at the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival and by DownBeat magazine. And the program has racked up numerous other honors from DownBeat. Now comes a new distinction courtesy of the publication hailed as the jazz industry’s bible: being featured in the magazine’s “Jazz on Campus” column in January’s editions.
“It’s quite an honor,” Roach said. But on a day as fall edged toward winter, he was more excited about the narrowing search for a full-time jazz instructor. Roach has been the only one since coming to Sac State in 2001 to found the program, which got off the ground in 2003 once he designed the curriculum and hired faculty.
Roach said the University hoped to offer the position by winter break; the professor would start in fall 2020 and, Roach said, would assist with directing one of the program’s two big bands, some of its six to eight combos, and teach jazz theory, improv, piano, and pedagogy.
That would provide considerable relief for Roach. Each year he has a hand in what he estimates to be “a couple hundred events.” Roach does the heavy lifting for two festivals hosted by the University – the recent Winter Jazz Festival and the springtime Teagarden Jazz Festival – takes the ensemble to others including Reno and Monterey, and handles recruiting and outreach, travel and booking.
“It’s what you do to maintain and sustain visibility for the program, which is very vital to me,” he said, noting the competition, especially with other CSU programs, for the best and brightest.
“One of the biggest compliments we can get is ‘I heard you in Monterey’ or ‘I heard you in Reno,’ ” Roach said. “DownBeat is great for visibility, but with music, I think they have to hear it. They have to experience it. So we gotta be sharp every time we play and keep that standard up.”
Roach also tries to make sure his students get a comprehensive picture of jazz traditions and innovations. Mid-century luminaries such as Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and Buddy Rich always will matter, but Roach values the musical fingerprints of modern players such as Stefon Harris, Omar Sosa and Florian Ross.
Associated Students Inc. DOC grants awarded annually allow Sac State jazz students the critical experience of recording CDs, an experience that both documents their performances and provides an understanding of the recording process.
“Look,” Roach said, “if you come here, you’re gonna record. You’re gonna play a lot. We’re gonna push you hard. You’re gonna have guest artists, and you’re in a good scene with a good peer group. That’s what we’re trying to create.”
Learn more about the Jazz Studies Program online.