WMU News

Africa becomes musical hot spot for WMU prof

March 16, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- Western Michigan University's Stephen Zegree is no stranger to traveling.

As one-fourth of the internationally known jazz ensemble the Western Jazz Quartet and an in-demand choral music instructor and director, Zegree, a professor of music, has traveled the world regularly as both a teacher and performer. But he had never been to Africa.

That has changed in a big way for Zegree, who recently returned from his second trip to South Africa. Last fall, Zegree was invited to Pretoria, where he served as guest conductor and clinician for the McLachlan 2000 Choral Workshop. The event, presented by the Pretoria South African Choral Society, is only held every three years.

In an unrelated turn of events, Zegree was asked to conduct the World Youth Choir in January. The famous choir, one of the top young choirs in the world, is sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He conducted the ensemble in vocal jazz, rehearsing with the choir and conducting performances in Belgium, France and Luxembourg. He and the group of 32 singers then flew to South Africa and gave a full week's worth of concerts there.

"They were two separate and totally unrelated events," Zegree says. "I had never been to Africa, and then to have been there twice in just four months was kind of a funny coincidence."

It also was very rewarding for Zegree, both artistically and otherwise. Being asked to conduct the World Youth Choir, for example, was a great compliment, Zegree says.

"It's a huge honor to be invited to conduct that group," he says. "It's an amazing organization. Probably one of the best young concert choirs in the world."

World Youth Choir members come from all over the world and audition to become part of the ensemble. Members are aspiring young professionals, Zegree notes.

"The term 'youth choir' does not mean kids," Zegree says. "It's made up of serious professionals between the ages of 19 and 29. They were just marvelous. They are not only talented musicians, they are just great people. It was a musical experience of the highest degree."

Two WMU students accompanied Zegree on the tour. Jonathan Rogers of Spring Lake, Mich., a drummer with WMU's Gold Company vocal jazz group for two years, played drums, while Mark Van Ziegler of North Canton, Ohio, current bassist for Gold Company, played bass. Zegree directs that student vocal jazz ensemble. Zegree says it was much easier to teach vocal jazz to World Youth Choir members having his own rhythm section with him, especially since this was the first time the World Youth Choir had tackled vocal jazz.

"They were wonderful," Zegree says of Rogers and Van Ziegler. "It was not only a terrific opportunity for them, but I was also very proud because they represented our University so well."

Zegree's first visit to South Africa also provided a rich cultural encounter and teaching experience that was challenging and rewarding. He not only acted as conductor of the McLachlan Festival Chorus, but headed several master classes and clinics with a long list of choirs from throughout country. A typical day would see him work with one group in the morning, another in the afternoon and a third in the evening.

"I was busy," Zegree says. "I think I worked with something like over 30 choirs while I was there. They kept me hopping, for sure."

Zegree worked with an assortment of ensembles from children's choirs all the way up through high school, professional choirs and even an adult church choir. The choirs had had limited training in vocal jazz, but what was more profound is the wide range of musical backgrounds the choirs had as their foundations. Many were based on the European classical music tradition, while others were native choirs steeped in the African choral tradition similar to the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which found great notoriety through its work with pop artist Paul Simon.

Like the nation of South Africa itself, which recognizes 13 different national languages, the country's musical and cultural landscape is painted with a wide degree of hues, Zegree says.

"The musical culture is so different in that there are all these elements that come from Western European musical background and then elements that come from African musical background," he says. "And those are very, very different cultures. So there were some groups that were singing Western European classical music -- Bach and those kinds of things -- and I also worked with black African choirs."

As a jazz pianist, Zegree was especially interested in working with some of the black African-based choral groups because of the influence of black African music on American jazz.

"I was just loving that because there's a classical side of me and a jazz side of me," Zegree says. "And the jazz side of me was loving being right at the root of what goes into our jazz music."

Zegree's hosts also were getting a lot in return. Despite the influence of African music on American jazz, the vocal jazz style was very foreign to them.

"I was probably the very first person in the country to ever bring that there," he says. "But they were very receptive to what I was offering them, even though it was very new. It was an amazing experience."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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