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Art Populi: Creating Great Jazz In Tampa Bay

Strolling through the halls of the University of South Florida School of Music you can hear students in various practice rooms. But inside Director of Jazz Studies Jack Wilkins' office, teachers are rehearsing too.

“We sort of have artist-faculty that practice what they preach,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins is playing a portion of his latest effort: the "Banff Project” with USF Instructor of Piano Chris Rottmayer. Rottmayer is on the keys; Wilkins on sax.

The "Banff Project” is a multimedia experience that blends live music with moving images. Wilkins created it while an Artist-In-Residence at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta – smack in the middle of the Banff National Park area of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Inside Wilkins' office, he and Rottmayer are playing a song called “Banff Highway,” a driving jazz piece of sorts that pairs the music with time-lapse photography of a car cruising along the Trans-Canada Highway. Wilkins says the visual component of the project is critical to the audience experience.

Getting those visuals wasn't always easy. Wilkins recalls one moment when a team member nearly fell off the roof of the Banff Centre while capturing panoramic shots of mountain scenery. Those images are part of a piece called "Panorama Melodica," which will take the audience on a bit of a wild ride, as the film speeds up and eventually runs backwards, with musicians playing a familiar melody each time a landmark moves to the center of the screen.

Credit Jack Wilkins
An image from "Castle Mountain," one of the pieces in Jack Wilkins' "Banff Project."

Wilkins says it’s challenging to get a band of musicians to perform in perfect time with a series of changing visuals, especially since they won't be able to see those visuals while performing.

“That's the reason I use the best professionals, because otherwise it wouldn't work,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins will debut the "Banff Project” Thursday night at the USF Concert Hall. Another performance is scheduled later this year in Edmonton, Alberta, where Wilkins recorded a CD of the pieces.

Several musicians who will perform this piece in Tampa are traveling from out-of-state, but many are USF faculty. To Wilkins and others, this performance proves that you don't have to be in New York or L.A. to host a world premiere.

“For me I can do everything I want do, and actually more creative projects, being a music professor and being in Tampa than I could in New York, when I'd really have to work every possible thing I could work just to make enough money to survive,” Wilkins said.

Pianist Chris Rottmayer agrees. He says taking advantage of a professor's salary and Florida's cost of living gives him more control over his career. He can turn down gigs he doesn’t want to work and spend time on his own ventures, like the Chris Rottmayer Quintet.

“I feel like I can put together a project, fund that project, use the best available musicians – and I'm not sure I would have that opportunity in New York,” Rottmayer said. “I'm sure I could find great players but, gosh, venues are expensive, everyone's time is expensive, rehearsal facilities – it's all a giant challenge."

Rottmayer says he even knows musicians who are flocking to Florida.

“The gigs pay more, [musicians] have more opportunity to live a comfortable life,” Rottmayer said. “You know, I have a house with a pool! That would never happen in New York or L.A. – that's a million dollar home.”

Rottmayer says there's a wide range of venues in the Tampa Bay Area to keep musicians busy, like the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg or the USF Concert Hall, home to the Monday Night Jazz Series.

The trick, Wilkins says, is reaching people. Groups like the Tampa Jazz Club or Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association in St. Pete help keep members informed about upcoming shows. But sometimes, live jazz seems to keep a low profile.

“One of the realities is that nobody has big advertising budgets or things like that,” Wilkins said. “So it’s sort of word of mouth, social media, mailing lists, etc.”

That's one of the reasons why Wilkins keeps pairing his music with multimedia exhibits and other art forms, like he’s doing with the "Banff Project.”

“If you do film and music together, you may get some film people that aren’t necessarily music people, or you may get some music people that aren’t film people,” Wilkins said. "Or you may just get some general creative people that wonder, ‘What in the world is this?’ and want something to do.”

Wilkins says so long as you're surrounded by people who support the arts and creativity, like he is in Tampa, great jazz music can thrive. 

WUSF News invites you to contribute to our Art Populi series. Grab your phone and send us your thoughts and pictures of your favorite memories of jazz concerts and musicians in the Tampa Bay Area. Tweet us @WUSF, or find us on Facebook and Instagram @WUSFPublicMedia. Make sure you use the hashtag -- #WUSFMusic.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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