WMU News

Gold Company celebrates silver anniversary

Jan. 22, 2003

KALAMAZOO -- If directing a vocal ensemble can be compared to coaching an athletic team, then meet Stephen Zegree, Western Michigan University's Knute Rockne of vocal jazz.

Zegree, professor of music, is the longtime director of Gold Company, WMU's acclaimed vocal jazz ensemble. It was 25 years ago that Zegree began calling plays for what until then had been called the Varsity Vagabonds, taking over for Elwyn "Doc" Carter, the man who created the vision for a WMU vocal jazz ensemble.

After Zegree's arrival, the group changed its name and went on to distinguish itself through numerous appearances at high profile events and several award-winning recordings.

"We are a little bit like a football team or basketball team in that we audition a group every year, so we have to start over every single fall," Zegree says. "Perhaps the only difference between us and an athletic team is that you'll never hear this coach refer to the fact that we're in a rebuilding year. Those words will never come out of my mouth."

Gold Company and its sister vocal jazz group GC II will hit another high note on Feb. 1 when the ensembles mark Gold Company's 25th anniversary with two concerts in Miller Auditorium. Coincidentally, it will be the group's 25th annual concert in Miller.

Zegree and company have planned an event befitting such a milestone. All graduates of the Gold Company program have been invited to come back and celebrate.

"We already know that over 100 are coming, including a whole bunch from the very first years," Zegree says. "And we're going to get them up on stage. They're going to be performing."

Another concert highlight will be a performance by guest artist Janis Siegel of the professional vocal jazz ensemble Manhattan Transfer. Siegel will perform several Transfer selections using Gold Company as her back-up group.

"Manhattan Transfer has always been kind of an inspiration to us," Zegree says. "We've done a lot of their music over the years, so we've decided to pay tribute to that group, because they're actually celebrating their 30th anniversary as a vocal group.

A special production number written by students also will be performed to pay tribute to all Gold Companies of the past. The piece will be dedicated to Gold Company alums, but Zegree is quick to add, "I think the entire audience will love it."

Last, but certainly not least, Gold Company has released a new compact disc to mark its 25-year milestone. Appropriately titled "25," the release is the ensemble's sixth CD and contains 15 new tracks, 13 of which were composed and/or arranged by current or former members of the program. Zegree thinks it's the best of the group's critically acclaimed releases.

Musical styles and fashions in general have changed over the past 25 years, Zegree says. But in a larger sense, the ensemble is the same today as it was 25 years ago.

"The focus has always been the same, and that's been excellence," Zegree says, "excellence in music making in a contemporary idiom. Whether it was jazz or pop, we were always about quality first and quality music making."

Something that has changed over the years, however, is Gold Company's growing national and international reputation.

The group has been invited to perform across the globe at a number of prestigious musical gatherings, including the national and international conventions of Music Fest Canada, the Music Educators National Conference and the International Association of Jazz Educators. Probably the biggest gig came in 1993, when Gold Company was the only vocal jazz ensemble in the world--college, university or otherwise--to be invited to perform at the World Symposium on Choral Music in Vancouver, British Columbia.

"That's something you don't apply for," Zegree says. "You just get the invitation. That was not only a terrific honor, but then to put ourselves on an international stage like that and to be so well received was a real high point for the University and the exposure of our program."

Gold Company also has a long list of distinguished alumni now performing in the entertainment field, including Broadway star Marin Mazie and jazz pianist Xavier Davis. Several have lent their talents to ubiquitous television commercials for the likes of Chili's and Budweiser. Others have become teachers at leading colleges and universities nationwide.

The word about Gold Company has spread, and students now come from across the country to be part of it. The program's growth has been so large that a second ensemble, GCII, was created to accommodate the additional demand.

Watching it all happen has been a thrill for Zegree.

"It's been an extraordinary experience," he says. "I'm really, really proud of the students who have come through our program, because so many have been so successful."

Gold Company and GC II perform at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1, in Miller Auditorium. Tickets range from $10 to $18. For more ticket information, contact the auditorium ticket office at (269) 387-2300.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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