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Willamette Singers collect fourth national award from DownBeat

by Jennifer Johnson,

Willamette Singers

Willamette University’s choral group has received national recognition once again as the top undergraduate jazz ensemble. 

DownBeat Magazine’s recent annual Student Music Awards issue honored the Willamette Singers, a 17-member vocal jazz group, as Best Undergraduate Large Vocal Jazz Ensemble for their 2019 CD, “Black Magic,” led by then-Director of Choral Activities Wallace Long, Jr

The magazine has recognized the group four times with the award since 2013. Individual students earned awards from the magazine twice in 2014.  

DownBeat, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious jazz magazines, is the premier publication for this style of collegiate evaluation, said Visiting Professor of Jazz Chair Matthew Sazima ’14, a former member of the group who now oversees it. 

“This wasn’t just any award for undergraduate vocal jazz, this was the award,” he said. “It’s from the top tastemaker in jazz.” 

DownBeat considers submissions from middle school, high school and university students around the world. Professional musicians and educators judge each on qualities including musicianship, creativity, improvisation and technique. Willamette Singers last received the honor in 2017 for their CD “Green Garden.” 

One of the most extraordinary aspects of the award — and Willamette’s music program in general — is that both music and nonmusic majors earned it, Sazima said. Currently, only half of the ensemble are music majors while the rest are pursuing other interests. 

Nonmusic majors can also receive music scholarships, so students should feel free to audition and participate in the program, he said. 

“We believe that every student should have access to amazing musical opportunities and participate in as much art as possible,” Sazima said. 

Ariana Pippert ’21, student ensemble leader and a member her entire undergraduate career, said it's not an elite ensemble for those who are "the best” — vocal jazz is a style of music that most students have no experience with coming into Willamette. 

Smaller than a typical choir, Willamette Singers also features a student jazz instrumental combo that plays at every rehearsal and performance. Learning to collaborate with other students in this manner is a valuable learning experience for up-and-coming musicians, she said. 

Pippert attended Willamette because of the ensemble and stayed because of the camaraderie and amazing music-making. 

“We learn and perform music that can be challenging to conquer, and when we do, it is the most gratifying experience,” she said. “My time with Willamette Singers defined my time with Willamette University. At the end of the day, I am walking away with a family as well as a degree.” 

After such an extraordinary time — when the pandemic shut down all group gatherings and hit musicians particularly hard — winning the award uplifted and confirmed the talent of the group during what was Long’s final year at Willamette. He led vocal ensembles for 37 years and retired in 2020. 

“We’ve had such wonderful fans over the decades,” he said. “A big thanks to those who supported us along the way.” 

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