THE CROWD GATHERS, HUDDLED AROUND TABLES while the lights dim, and the performers take the stage. This scene has been repeating at the University of Central Oklahoma Jazz Lab now for two decades. It took a convergence of dreams that came together 20 years ago to make the UCO Jazz Lab a reality.
The foundations of these dreams were laid many years earlier in 1974 when Kent Kidwell, UCO professor emeritus, was able to establish the first formal jazz ensemble as an accredited part of the music curriculum at UCO. The very next year (1975) Kidwell’s jazz ensemble received top honors at the Wichita Jazz Festival. Lee Rucker, who had been recruited as a student by Kidwell in the fall of 1974, played in that ensemble, and after graduating, began teaching at UCO in 1981. The two of them grew one jazz ensemble into the current renowned jazz studies program, which includes four large jazz ensembles, six unique jazz combos, a vocal jazz ensemble and multiple degrees in jazz studies.
Brian Gorrell, director of jazz studies at UCO, and Clint Rohr, Jazz Lab director, have had firsthand experience of the evolution and impact the Jazz Lab had over the past 20 years.
“Upon arriving at UCO in 1997, it was the vision of President Roger Webb to bring the long-standing success of the UCO jazz program to the Edmond community by merging academic excellence, local businesses and professional performers,” Rohr said. “Webb believed there was a definite market for a site that would serve as a teaching facility by day and an entertainment spot by night.”
When developer Mark Neighbors donated land at South Littler and Fifth Street to the university, the Jazz Lab became a reality thanks to a creative collaboration with the university, the UCO Foundation, the Neighbors family, the Edmond Economic Authority and the City of Edmond.
“It’s a combination of the right people coming together at the right time. And I can’t stress enough the importance of Kent and Lee,” Gorrell said. “We wouldn’t have anything to celebrate if it weren’t for them. The strength of our jazz program can be directly credited to their dedication, vision and talent.”
Since opening in 2002, a local group of business owners, ‘The Tres Amigos,’ have been supporting the UCO Jazz Lab by bringing in more than 60 headliners including Judy Collins, Boz Scaggs, Lindsey Buckingham, JD Souther, Karla Bonoff, Ray Manzarek, Ann Hampton Callaway, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steve Tyrell and Chris Botti. “In the true spirit of Roger Webb’s vision, ‘The Tres Amigos’ have not only supported world-class performing artists, but they also support the students that use the facility daily by starting the Lee Rucker Endowed Scholarship, the Scott Booker Endowed Scholarship and the Clint Rohr/Brian Gorrell Endowed Scholarship,” Rohr said.
A Week of Celebration
During the second week of March, both old and new friends gathered for a series of concerts celebrating the impact the Jazz Lab has had on UCO, Edmond and the Oklahoma City metro music community over the past 20 years. These concerts included current UCO faculty and students, as well as several guest performers, many with previous connections to UCO or the Jazz Lab.
The Oklahoma City Jazz Orchestra (OKCJO) kicked off the festivities. Under the direction of Brian Gorrell, the OKCJO is comprised of UCO faculty, students and alumni. They were joined by guest drummers David Anderson, one of Los Angeles’ most experienced and widely sought-after musicians, and Clyde Connor, adjunct lecturer at the University of Florida School of Music and a UCO alumnus.
Next up to perform was the Oklahoma Youth Jazz Ensemble (OKYJE). The OKYJE is an audition-based, honor group founded in 2013 by Gorrell to provide advanced jazz opportunities to Oklahoma high school students. The ensemble includes some of the top students in the state and is directed by Vince Norman.
According to Gorrell, “the idea was to include professional and high school students at the same concert. Not only is it great for recruiting, but it’s also a central component of why the Jazz Lab was built. We could not have had a better way to start our week of celebration.”
The celebration continued with performances by Grammy Award-winning artists John Daversa and Tal Cohen, as well as Garrett “Big G” Jacobson, a regular performer at the Jazz Lab. Garrett, who earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees from UCO, was also a performer during the opening in 2002. Garrett was joined by Lee Rucker, the original director of the Jazz Lab, on trumpet.
Gorrell and Jazz Company headlined Thursday. Gorrell, who also performed during the opening week in 2002, put together a very special evening celebrating 20 years at the Lab.
The week of events was set to conclude Friday evening; however, Mother Nature had other plans. Due to winter weather, the university closed and the final, fundraising event, entitled “UCO Jazz Lab: Celebrating 20 Years,” was postponed.
It is clear numerous people all contributed in large and small ways to both the creation and continued success of the Jazz Lab. While it is impossible to list them all, you can see the results of their collective vision are now a staple of the Oklahoma City metro community attracting students and talent from across the world.
“What made this 20-year celebration so special wasn’t just this amazing place, the UCO Jazz Lab, the ‘house that Kent built.’ It’s our community coming together to celebrate music,” Gorrell said.
“Generations of our former and current students, as well as our patrons who’ve been so supportive, all of them are a part of this very special extended family. Kent and Lee both had a profound impact on me and countless others, and I am filled with gratitude to be a part of this amazing community. I know Kent would have been proud.”