April 13 2011 12:00 AM

Jazz Spectacular brings Jimmy Heath and a slate of stars to Michigan State University


Who doesn’t like to eat frosting? If you haven’t savored the layer cake of jazz events stacked up by Michigan State University’s world-class jazz studies department throughout the year, this weekend’s Jazz Spectacular is a chance to catch up — and then some.

It’s the jazz-frenzied weekend when the students, at their year-end peak, mix it up with stellar guest artists drawn by jazz scholar Rodney Whitaker and his faculty.

This year, legendary alto saxman Jimmy Heath — thoroughbred stablemate to jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane and Miles Davis — visits the school to play and teach. He’ll be joined by vocalist Vanessa Rubin, rising trumpet star Jeremy Pelt and incandescent saxophone goddess Tia Fuller.

This year’s event crams master classes, workshops and concerts into three days and nights, culminating in Saturday’s all-star jam with the MSU Jazz Orchestra and Heath, Pelt and Fuller.

Whitaker, who swims with whales all the time, says the year-end treat isn’t much different from business as usual at MSU.

“We’ve had a lot of guest artists this year, not necessarily performing, but doing workshops,” he said.

Already this year, baritone saxman Gary Smulyan and piano legend Mulgrew Miller have come to MSU, along with top trombonists Elliott Mason and Michael Dease.

“So we’ve had a great year of folks coming in, and this is just icing on the cake,” Whitaker said.

Maybe so, but it’s extra-thick icing. Heath, a link to the golden age of mid- 20th-century jazz, grew up with composer/saxophonist Benny Golson and saxophone god John Coltrane. Heath even replaced Coltrane in Miles Davis’ group in 1959. Golson’s famous jazz standard, “Stablemates,” refers to the triumvirate of Golson, Coltrane and Heath.

Heath, who is also a composer and arranger, will conduct the MSU big band in some of his own charts. He arrives today for what amounts to a small residency, including master classes, workshops and Saturday’s monster concert.

Heath comes to MSU on the heels of a critically acclaimed new autobiography, “I Walked With Giants.”

With humility and gentle wit, Heath intersperses scenes from his own life with prose “solos” by other musicians who give their sides of the story. The result is a panoramic and absorbing picture of one of jazz’s most creative periods. Whitaker said he hopes to arrange a book signing while Heath is at MSU.

Whitaker and Heath go back a long way. Heath produced one of Whitaker’s first recordings, made in the early 1990s with Antonio Hart.

“I’ve adjudicated high school festivals with him, and kids fall in love with Mr. Heath,” Whitaker said. “Every time I would see him he asked me when I would bring him to Michigan State.”

Rubin performs at Friday’s concert and swing dance. Rubin will sing some arrangements by Frank Foster, prepared especially for her by Whitaker’s Jazz Orchestra 1. The MSU jazz vocal ensemble and leader Sunny Wilkinson will perform Friday as well.

At Saturday’s jam, Heath will be joined by saxophone phenomenon Fuller, who is known to many music lovers as a mainstay of Beyonce’s band. Star drummer Ralph Peterson will be in tow.

“Every year, about 20 percent that come through our program are female,” Whitaker said. “I wanted to bring a highly successful female performer here to provide some encouragement.”

Pelt, a rising trumpet star with a talent for teaching, rounds out the guest list. Whitaker said he has followed Pelt’s career since Pelt was “a kid” at Berkelee, in the mid-90s. Since then, they have played together on several CDs.

Pelt will also serve a judge at the MSU Jazz Spectacular’s academic core event, the regional Essentially Ellington high school jazz band competition. The competition draws some 20 high school jazz bands from as far as Wisconsin and Minnesota, as part of a national program through Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The other judges are Bill Sears, director of jazz studies at Interlochen Arts Academy; Max Colley, a retired band director from Northview High School in Grand Rapids; and Bob Stewart, a conductor of the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra and band director at the LaGuardia School of the Arts.

MSU Jazz Spectacular

7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14 Jazz Octets MSU Union Ballroom $8-10 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 15 Concert and Swing Dance with Jazz Orchestra I, II and Vocal Jazz Ensemble Vanessa Rubin, vocalist $15-$25 8 p.m. Saturday, April 16 Concert with MSU Jazz Orchestra and guest artists Jimmy Heath, Tia Fuller, Jeremy Pelt Music Building Auditorium $15-25