Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 25, 2008
DeKalb — When Rodrigo Villenueva’s Northern Illinois University Jazz Lab Band took first place last March at the prestigious jazz festival at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he immediately began dreaming aloud about an international tour.
Maybe to Peru, site of the acclaimed Festival Jazz en Peru, where the NIU Jazz Ensemble and the NIU Liberace Jazztet played a few years ago. Or maybe to Mexico, his beloved homeland.
Eight months later, in a journey Villanueva believes was “meant to happen,” he and 17 young musicians are headed just south of the border.
“They are thrilled, and I feel very proud to be sharing with them what my country is all about. The people are very friendly,” says Villanueva, who came to NIU in 2004.
“This is more than just a musical experience for them. It’s a cultural experience. Every time you visit a different country, you find different things,” Villanueva adds. “NIU has a lot of international students, but not as many as some other universities. My students haven’t been exposed. When I asked about passports, 75 percent of them didn’t have one. They haven’t traveled abroad.”
December, of course, will change that.
Performances are booked at the first JazzUV International Jazz Festival in Xalapa and the XIV San Miguel De Allende Jazz & Blues International Festival. The band also will perform at two of the most exclusive jazz clubs in Mexico: La Encrucijada Jazz in Queretaro City and El Zinco Jazz Bar in Mexico City.
Gigs at the festivals – Xalapa is Monday, Dec. 1, and Tuesday, Dec. 2, and San Miguel is Wednesday, Dec. 3, and Thursday, Dec. 4 – include top-spot concerts on their own and as a support unit for guest artists. They’re also delivering a Monday morning master class on rehearsal and conducting techniques.
The Mexico schedule will bring the band’s performances to 11 this semester, nearly six times the typical number of autumn appearances.
That number also includes a recent support slot on campus for guest trumpeter Alan Vizzutti and this week’s concert at the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall.
“Eleven is way over what we really do. They all deserve an ‘A’ at the end of the semester. They are the most disciplined group I’ve ever worked with here at NIU,” Villanueva says. “It’s been amazing just to see them get prepared and get excited, especially the ones who’ve never been away.”
Meanwhile, Villanueva expects his students will make the trip with a mature outlook.
For one thing, they’re traveling for free. The festival organizers are paying for lodging and ground transportation while the NIU School of Music is picking up the tab for airfare and per diems, he says.
They also realize that their conductor hopes to recruit Mexican students to NIU. The level of musicianship among the Jazz Lab Band members will impress all of Mexico, he says, even the students in the country’s best conservatory of music.
And they understand the door that is opening is typically reserved for a school’s premier group. International tours are common for the legendary NIU Jazz Ensemble and its conductor, Ron Carter.
“They know they need to really represent well not only their school but their country. They don’t have to pay a dime to go to Mexico, so this is a job, a gig – you really have to do it well and get it right,” Villanueva says.
“This is a very unique opportunity. Usually when you have three or four jazz ensembles, the band that gets to tour is the top band. For the second band to be in the spotlight makes the students willing to work harder,” he adds. “Our school of music has a very strong program, and the jazz program has become stronger and stronger in the last 10 years. We’re actually keeping up and stepping up the tradition the school has. I’m trying to keep up with Ron Carter and put my ensemble in the perspective that we might be the second group – but we’re still a very good group.”
Next week’s trip also serves as a test for the future of the Jazz Lab Band’s road adventures.
“If all goes well, I hope to make this happen every two or three years. I’ve worked hard getting the right people involved in Mexico as far as invitations and places we’re going to play,” he says. “And in terms of life experience, this is something the students will recall the rest of their lives.”
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