Like the lyrics to John Hendrick’s song, “Everybody’s Boppin’”—when he sings of the Dixieland bands that kept jazz alive—Georgia College’s Jazz Band has done its part to keep the art form going and Milledgeville swinging for a generation.
Celebrating its 50th year with a special jazz concert, the Georgia College Jazz Band brings full circle a special time in history that embraces the lives of three campus bandleaders, scores of talented students and alumni and an unremitting music that continues to evolve, entertain and groove.
“It’s important to keep the jazz tradition alive. It’s an important element of American music,” said University Historian Dr. Bob Wilson.
“It’s America’s indigenous music. It’s wonderful. It’s exhilarating,” Wilson said. “When you’re down-and-out in spirit, you go to a jazz concert, because—as Duke Ellington used to say— ‘It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.’”
The concert emulates the history of jazz—its advancing age and, yet, inexhaustible ability to renew itself—with special performances by two students. Senior Cole Markland plays tenor saxophone in his last jazz concert at Georgia College, and freshman Jacob Hammock plays drums in his first jazz appearance.
The two perform a 20-minute, three-movement rendition of Bill Reddie’s rip-roaring “Channel One Suite”—an “epic that’s going to bring the house down,” said Dr. Cliff Towner, director of bands and someone who’s “a mean trumpet player” in his own rights, according to Wilson.
The concert encompasses all jazz styles like swing, bebop, Latin, rock and funk. It showcases songs like Pat Metheny’s mellow “Afternoon” and Harold Arlen’s great ballad, “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe.”
Dr. Jim Willoughby plans to join the audience for the 50th celebration. At age 78 and retired, Willoughby is credited with starting the university’s first jazz band in 1969. As a youngster, he played in the marching band at Baldwin High School. Willoughby worked at Dublin High School, before coming to Georgia College as band director and woodwind instructor. He stayed 28 years.
Fifty years ago, the music department only offered three majors: piano, voice and organ. One of the first things Willoughby did was start a jazz band, which wasn’t offered at many Georgia schools at that time. Fifteen students with little experience formed the first ensemble. They played at the dedication of the Maxwell Student Union and toured various high schools. Students throughout the state began coming to Georgia College, because of its jazz-oriented music program.
“Why jazz?” Willoughby said. “Well, I knew pretty much that it was something everybody enjoys. And it kept developing over the years. It has stood the vicissitudes of time.”
Willoughby hosted the first spring JazzFest at Georgia College, which still continues today. He held jazz workshops, where the university band performed alongside high school bands. Both programs helped the music department grow and attract new talent.
Willoughby-era jazz bands auditioned to appear in multiple district honor bands throughout the state. They auditioned and played at the Georgia Music Educators conference and New Orleans Jazz/Heritage Festival. Willoughby was proudest, when the band was invited as the warm-up act in Russell Auditorium, before a Buddy Rich Band concert.
He’s happy to know university jazz has withstood the test of time, continued by two other bandleaders. It makes Willoughby feel he “did something right by starting it.” He keeps in contact with alumni through a Facebook page called “Georgia College Jazz Band, the Jim Willoughby Days.” Group members have performed together at alumni jazz concerts.
Alumni, faculty and students also participate in a ‘jazz jam’ downtown once a month at Amici’s, owned by former jazz band drummer, Jon Joiner. Joiner’s brother, Philip, played trumpet in the band. Recently, Willoughby dropped by Amici’s and played piano with an impromptu group. They performed “On the Sunnyside of the Street”—a song from 1930, refashioned by greats like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday.
“I love the fact we have a little club in town that plays,” Willoughby said. “It’s wonderful to have that outlet in Milledgeville and the people, they come. They fill the place up to hear live jazz.”
Jazz started in African-American roots and became popular in New Orleans. It spread rapidly and morphed into the Big Band sounds of World War II. Those danceable tunes birthed the jitterbug.
It was great favorites like “Makin’ Whoopey” and “Moonlight Serenade” by Glen Miller that Dr. Todd Shiver turned to when he took over as director of bands in 1990. Three years into his tenure, Shiver recreated a show Bob Hope did at Georgia College in 1943. For the first time, the jazz band played inside Russell Auditorium to packed audiences.
“That moment changed everything,” said Wilson, who was emcee for that performance and continued to narrate jazz programs until 2016.
“People came in droves to hear the Georgia College Jazz Band. It was just magic,” he said. “We had found our core audience, and they stayed with the band in all subsequent years, because this was the biggest thing going.”
The instrumental music program continued to witness tremendous growth under Shiver. By the time he left to be chair of music at Central Washington State University, the jazz band had increased in membership. All jazz concerts sold out Russell Auditorium; summer camps brought more than 200 high school students to campus; and the music department had dozens of new majors.
Shiver credits this success to Willoughby, who played a major role in promoting jazz education in Georgia public schools. Shiver himself attended one of Willoughby’s state jazz clinics in Milledgeville, when he was a high school student from Albany.
“Little did I know that one day, I would become a part of the rich jazz tradition that Jim started at Georgia College,” Shiver said.
Matt Davis, director of historic museums, played tenor saxophone in the Georgia College Jazz Band. Jazz is garnering new generational interest, he said. Its renaissance is due to groups like Postmodern Jukebox and the Melvin Jones Trio, which played on campus this fall.
His brother, alumnus Jay Davis, was a lead trumpet player for the jazz band. According to Wilson, Jay was “an unbelievable trumpet player and he could blow the roof off.” Jay now directs bands at Houston County High School.
Matt’s fondest memory is being in the first jazz group to go to the Czech Republic—a study abroad trip started by Shiver that continues to this day. He also enjoyed recording two CDs released by the band. They performed to “packed houses wherever we went,” he said, and played with modern jazz legends like Byron Stripling, Bill Watrous and Chris Vadala.
“The music, the performances and the friendships made created lasting memories for me, and I still enjoy the opportunity to play my horn to this day,” Davis said. “All alumni of the program are proud to have been a part of this legacy.”
Baldwin County High School Band Director James McMillan played trumpet in the jazz band. He attended Georgia College, after hearing the stories his father told. The late Joseph McMillan was a member of the original jazz band under Willoughby. Father and son got to play together in Willoughby’s alumni concerts.
McMillan was involved in numerous ensembles including Concert Band, Pep Band, Brass Ensemble and Brass Quintet.
“But the Jazz Band was always one of my favorites,” he said. “Jazz band is what brought me to Georgia College. Playing with that particular group has given me memories that will last a lifetime.”
Towner came to Georgia College in 2011 from Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. As band director, his goal has been to bridge the gap between old and new forms of jazz—a link that honors the past 50 years, while looking to the future. He gives a nod to older jazz fans, while introducing the funky sound to a new crop of listeners.
“The jazz band is a close-knit, hard-working ensemble, and they are a joy to work with,” Towner said. “I believe this balance that I try to achieve with every concert keeps the die-hard jazz fans coming, while also attracting new members to our audiences.”
Willoughby and Shiver often took raw talent and whipped it into something amazing. But today’s music students arrive experienced and ready to jam. The latest jazz bands have been the best talent in Georgia College history, Wilson said, and people are beginning to notice.
Jazz has tenacity, an ability to change and recreate itself.
“It’s America’s art form. It will always perpetuate itself,” Willoughby said. “People enjoy jazz, because of the improvisation. They enjoy it because it’s spontaneous. It’s infectious. It swings."