UNL Jazz Singers ‘fly away’ with DownBeat Award

UNL Jazz Singers
UNL Jazz Singers

UNL Jazz Singers ‘fly away’ with DownBeat Award

calendar icon28 Apr 2020    user iconBy Brian G Reetz

Stefanie Vanderbeek
Stefanie Vanderbeek

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Glenn Korff School of Music Jazz Singers were recently named a winner in the 43rd annual DownBeat Student Music Awards. The Jazz Singers are winners in the Large Vocal Jazz Ensemble Undergraduate College Outstanding Performances category.

Established in 1976, the DownBeat Student Music Awards are considered the most prestigious awards in jazz education. Hundreds of musicians, music educators and music industry professionals received their first international recognition as DownBeat Student Music Award winners.

Directed by David von Kampen, the Jazz Singers submitted only live, unedited recordings from fall semester concerts in Kimball Recital Hall of "Groovin' Hard" (arranged by Dave Barduhn), “which has a really difficult ensemble soli section,” according to von Kampen. Also, von Kampen’s arrangements of "Fly Away Birdie", which featured Stefanie Vanderbeek on a “really lovely lyric solo”, and "Maria Walks Amid the Thorn," an unaccompanied Advent carol “that blurs the line between jazz and chamber choir style.”

“I like that these three selections have a broad stylistic range, and they really show off all the different things the group does well,” von Kampen said. Adding that the way the recording was submitted (live and unedited), “….is especially gratifying to me because many Downbeat-winning ensembles submit highly-produced studio recordings. I love the fact that our ensemble was recognized for these recordings that communicate exactly what the group sounds like live.”

Jazz Singers this year included: Casey Allen, Halley Benjamin, Matthew Carter, Justin Eisenbeis, Noah Floersch, Michael Golden, Tess Jisa, Matthew Lowe, Elias Lozada, Greyson McCown, Olivia McCown, Madeline Reddel, Erik Skoog, Maddy Stark, Stefanie Vanderbeek. The rhythm section was Andrew Wray on drums and Christian Chesanek on bass.

Vanderbeek was also mentioned individually as part of the DownBeat award as Outstanding Beginning Soloist in “Fly Away Birdie”. Vanderbeek is a junior Advertising and Public Relations student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with minors in history, computer science, and music technology. She’s been involved in music for as long as she can remember. She went to Millard West High School in Omaha, where she was involved in varsity show choir, choir, and musical theatre. In her junior year, she starred as Audrey in the musical Little Shop of Horrors. She also took voice lessons at SNJ studios and participated in SNJ singers vocal ensemble. At UNL, Stefanie has been involved in Jazz Singers since her freshman year, along with UNL’s Boots and Cats A Cappella and Big Red Singers.

Here is a link to the performance of “Fly Award Birdie”: https://youtu.be/UwPye7Z-izM

“I believe we worked on it for around five weeks before our first performance of it, I know it was a pretty short amount of time!” Vanderbeek said. “I love the moments in the middle when the song really swells because it happens gradually enough that you don’t realize the moment is there until you’re in it. I also really loved the amount of liberty I was allowed to take with the solo because I think it really helped me improve in confidence as a vocalist!”

The announcing of the awards were embargoed until the June 2020 issue of DownBeat was mailed out (April 28), but the ensemble was told of the winning the award earlier this semester.

“My reaction was very short lived because I had to go to a rehearsal and I couldn’t really tell anyone about it but I was incredibly excited and in a bit of disbelief because I honestly didn’t know it was a possibility that I’d win, and I’ve never won an award like that before! It was very surreal but insanely cool!” Vanderbeek said.

Von Kampen added, “The adjudicator went out of his or her way to communicate to us that Stefanie was being given an outstanding soloist award. Usually soloists have to submit separate recordings for consideration. Stefanie just had a solo within one of our ensemble tracks, and the adjudicator specifically singled her out. I think that's pretty incredible, and indicative of what a strong musician she is.”

Auditions for the Jazz Singers took place in August 2019 and were particularly competitive, according to von Kampen, “and there was a lot of talent in the room when we started. But our singers all know that it doesn't matter how good their individual voices are if they don't do their homework on the charts. Serious vocal jazz literature requires an incredible commitment to ear training, listening, and sectionals, and they did it all year.

“I'm extremely proud of this group. Rehearsals were intense all year, and they worked really hard. When I started directing this group in 2015, I think my standards were higher than the students. Now the group realizes what it takes to do this music at a high level, and they hold themselves to that standard. It's been really cool to watch that change gradually happen.”

DownBeats are the most significant awards in jazz education, von Kampen added. 

“The very best jazz schools in the country are represented every year in the award lists. It's a huge honor. This is an important milestone for Jazz Singers. The best collegiate jazz choirs in the country win Downbeat awards regularly, and that's my goal for this group. I hope this is the first of many.”

Vanderbeek added, “Jazz Singers is such an amazing group to sing with, I can’t think of any people I’d rather make music with. You can just tell that everyone’s so in tune with the music and each other and that there’s a lot of love for one another in the group, they’re some of my best friends on campus! And DVK is the best director we could ask for, he’s incredibly talented and he’s able to take the group to the next level, he’s the one that’s gotten this group to the incredible standard of excellence it’s at now!”

And with the way the spring semester ended due to COVID-19, it left Vanderbeek wanting more.

“I’m missing Jazz Singers more than I could say, we got to hang out one last time I think a day after our final concert and we had a fun hang out on zoom, but I really can’t wait to see everyone again and make music with them once we’re able to!” she said.