March 30 2011 12:00 AM

MSU Jazz Vocal Ensemble assembles for the last time



A farewell concert comes with a ton of baggage, but the Michigan State University Vocal Jazz Ensemble is ready to swing it.

As part of a university-wide 20 percent slash of programs across many departments, the School of Music’s 7-year-old vocal jazz program has been dropped. The program’s founder, MSU vocal jazz luminary Sunny Wilkinson, will not be re-hired next year after 17 years with the school. Another program in the College of Music, music therapy, was also axed.

The current ensemble of eight students, plus four returning graduates, will go out swinging with a set  of solos, duets and ensembles at a farewell show in Perspective2 Thursday.

Wilkinson is clearly disappointed, but the ebullient vocalist and teacher is not called Sunny for nothing. She insisted on keeping the vibe positive.

“It has been an honor and joy to work with the next generation of jazz singers,” she said.

Wilkinson plans to throw herself back into performing, touring and recording full force. Students are already lining up to study with her privately.

A faculty position, she said, takes up a lot of time and creative energy.

“There’s a lot of music brewing and ready to bubble out of me,” she said.

The jazz vocal program has dwindled from a dozen or so students on average to three this semester. Tamara Mayers, set to graduate this semester, was the last student to be admitted. A native of the Virgin Islands, she came to Lansing in 2009 and gravitated to Wilkinson right away.

“I feel blessed that I squeaked through at the very last minute, but I feel sad for anyone else who wanted to come here, because they’re missing out.”

Training under Wilkinson is a complete experience, Mayers said, from basking in the trademark Sunny passion for jazz to absorbing the great singers of the past to soaking up technical knowledge.

“She brings a different side of the experience because she played trombone for about 12 years,” Mayer said.

In a unique seminar, Wilkinson takes her students on a trip through the vocal apparatus. “We learned that there’s a whole science of singing,” Mayers said. “I’m a nerd, so I kind of like that side of it.”

Singing in an ensemble, Mayers said, gave her a chance to work harder on enunciation, rhythm and feel.

“The feel has to consistent when you’re dealing with several voices,” she said. The chance to sing with a variety of instrumental groups, from small combos to big bands, has been another big plus for MSU vocal students.

Many close friendships formed in the ensemble over its seven years. Mayers said she treasures the bond she formed with Stacy Carter, a vocal jazz grad last year.

“She’s become one of my greatest friends and supporters, and I feel the same way about her,” Mayers said. “Even outside of class, we spend a lot of time working on music together, figuring things out, just getting excited about music together.”

Wilkinson’s pedagogical progeny are spread all over the world. Former Wilkinson student Tiffany Gridiron, a non-jazz major, is a celebrity in jazz-mad Japan, where she’s known as just Tiffany and is cutting her seventh CD for Sony Records.

Gridiron auditioned for the only non-major slot in Wilkinson’s studio class in 2006 and found her “incredibly generous.”

“I tried to soak her up like a sponge,” Gridiron said in an interview for MSU Music Notes. “Prior to meeting Sunny I had never thought about singing jazz.”

Ashton Moore, now singing full time in Japan, sang the national anthem for Barack Obama’s visit to Grand Rapids.

Former student Meghan McKown is recording and performing in Chicago. Another alum, Stacey Carter, got into the prestigious Betty Carter Jazz Ahead residency program last year.

“It has been my privilege to help focus them and help bring out their natural gifts,” Wilkinson said.

But she was done with the topic. As her art demands, Wilkinson prefers to dig the moment.

“Have you heard the new Bobby McFerrin record? It’s fantastic,” she said. “One of my former students, Katie Campbell, is the lead soprano. She’s fantastic.”

Michigan State University Vocal Jazz Ensemble

Sunny Wilkinson, director 7 p.m. Thursday, March 31 Perspective2 319 E. Grand River Ave., Lansing $5-$15 (517) 853-5880