Harmonizing Tribute: Rowan University’s 54th Annual Jazz Festival pays homage to Tony Bennett

"During the performance, a screen above the band played a video compilation of Tony Bennett throughout the years, highlighting the vastness of his career with shots of a young Tony performing in the 1950s & 60s mixed with recent clips from his multiple concerts with Lady Gaga in the 2010s." - Contributor / Adam Reim.

On the evening of Feb. 16, jazz appreciators from all across South Jersey assembled in Pfleeger Concert Hall to witness the culmination of Rowan University’s 54th Annual Jazz Festival: a tribute concert to Tony Bennett and the Great American Songbook. Denis DiBlasio, 59, a professor and director of Jazz Studies at Rowan, led the band and was also the organizer of the festival.

“This is the 54th Jazz Festival and the first one that I organized was the 27th,” said DiBlasio. 

In his 27th year as festival organizer, he noted that the Friday night concert is only part of what the festival is all about. The concert marks the end of a week-long jazz festival bringing local middle and high school jazz bands to Rowan University. These bands had the opportunity to perform in Pfleeger Concert Hall and work with DiBlasio and other Rowan Jazz faculty in a workshop setting. The festival ran Wednesday through Friday, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. 

“We averaged about 39 high schools in 3 days,” says DiBlasio.

Performing on stage Friday night as an endcap to the festival was the Rowan University Jazz Band, composed of nearly 20 Profs from a wide array of majors and backgrounds at the University.  The concert was open to the public for $15 admission and was free for Rowan students. To open the concert, after a brief introduction by Mr. DiBlasio, the Rowan Jazz Band played the infinitely recognizable tune “I Left My Heart In San Francisco”, made famous by Tony Bennett. Bennett, whom this concert was dedicated to, was a jazz vocalist widely considered to be one of the greatest music interpreters of his time. He died July 21, 2023, at age 96. 

According to his obituary from The Guardian, “Frank Sinatra used to call Bennett ‘the best singer in the business’. Bennett won 19 Grammy awards and was estimated to have sold more than 50 million records worldwide.”

While the Rowan Jazz Band did not feature a vocalist in their concert, Bennett’s legacy was saluted through the vast repertoire of music he sang regularly: the Great American Songbook, an unofficial collection of the greatest American jazz standards made famous by the crooners of the early-mid 20th century.

During the performance, a screen above the band played a video compilation of Tony Bennett throughout the years, highlighting the vastness of his career with shots of a young Tony performing in the 1950s & 60s mixed with recent clips from his multiple concerts with Lady Gaga in the 2010s.

Throughout the concert, multiple soloists were allowed to be featured, including tenor saxophonist Julian Carlisle, 22, Rowan Jazz Studies Major.

“Soloing is very invigorating and freeing. The ability to create ideas over someone else’s work is an amazing thing. Granted it can be nerve-wracking, but I do think improvisation is something that separates jazz from other genres of music and lets the performers present their creativity,” Carlisle said. 

In addition to old jazz standards, original compositions and arrangements by Rowan Jazz Band members were also performed. An original composition by Trevor Jones, a trumpeter and Jazz Studies major, brought some unique aspects to the concert. His piece, titled “Rain,” featured a solo from a bass saxophone to begin the tune. Carlisle commented on what it was like performing student-composed music. 

“Getting to play student-written compositions in a concert is truly an honoring experience, especially when talking about Trevor’s piece. When you know someone like that who is constantly writing and coming up with ideas, you know they’re going to be great. I’m happy that I got to improvise on Trevor’s pieces and I hope to bring them to life along with other students’ work,” said Carlisle.

Halfway through the concert, special guest performer and composer Doug Beach came out on stage to lead the band in two of his original compositions. Beach is a renowned jazz musician, composer, and educator. 

“It’s a real pleasure to be here tonight. I’ve had a wonderful several days here working with the high school groups coming in and with the wonderful musicians behind me,” stated Beach to the audience, who in addition to performing during the concert also worked with the local school groups earlier in the week.

One of Beach’s original compositions titled “Back Alley Shuffle” featured a jazz bassoon solo by Logan Stockl, a rarely heard sound in a big-band jazz setting. An audience member familiar with big band jazz concerts would notice immediately the odd arrangement of the players on stage.

“This is what they call the ‘Kenton Wings’ in the jazz world,” said DiBlasio, referring to jazz bandleader Stan Kenton, who staged his band members in “wings” on either side of the stage, with the rhythm section in the middle. “The students saw this at the Arturo O’Farrill concert and asked if we could try it ourselves,” DiBlasio added that this band setup allowed for better acoustics, while also looking cool.

To round out the concert, which ran roughly one hour and 15 minutes from start to finish, the band performed a Bennett classic, “Love for Sale.” In true big-band fashion, all players stood up on the risers for this final song.

After raucous applause and a roaring encore from the band, light refreshments were provided in the lobby by the Phi Mu Alpha music fraternity while audience members had the opportunity to talk with performers, Mr. DiBlasio, and Mr. Beach. Rowan University jazz musicians “left their hearts” out on the stage for the 54th year in a row, playing the classics, premiering student originals, and paying tribute to a true jazz legend. Tony Bennett would have been proud.

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