CEDAR FALLS — Bob Washut calls it his swan song, but the jazz concert he’s performing on Saturday is also the official debut of his new CD, “Journey to Knowhere.”
Both the concert and the CD release are appropriately timed because Washut is ending his career as a jazz studies professor and conductor at the University of Northern Iowa School of Music. The jazz man, an accomplished musician, composer and arranger has been teaching at UNI for 38 years, including 22 years as director of jazz studies and the fabled UNI Jazz Band I.
Retirement was an idea that evolved naturally, Washut says. “The last few years, I started to feel like the fire in the belly didn’t burn as bright as it used to. I love the teaching, but I felt less compelled to keep up the same level of energy I have for so many years. Because I wanted to go out on top, while I’m still doing well, I started to think about retiring. The feeling just got stronger, so I finally made the decision.
“It feels right,” he says, and he’s “keeping an open mind” about what musical pursuits await him.
His final concert with the UNI Jazz Panthers in early April was admittedly bittersweet, but Saturday will be a full day of activities and a reunion for Washut with UNI faculty artists, former students and colleagues. In addition to a reading band for jazz alumni, there will be dinner and cocktails, followed by Washut’s concert and a post-concert reception and jam session.
Proceeds from the concert will help establish a UNI jazz scholarship.
Washut earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Arizona State University in Tempe and did his doctoral work at the University of Colorado, Greeley. He taught two years at Tempe High School before heading back to the university classroom. When he accepted the top job in the UNI Jazz Studies program in 1980, Washut felt like he’d finally come home.
“Jazz was a four-letter word at many colleges. Many administrators thought the music didn’t have enough stature to warrant study. Not UNI. In the interview for the position, I could tell immediately it was an important position. I felt like I was working in a place that appreciated what I could offer,” Washut explains.
“My goal has been to maintain that long tradition and put my own personality on it, too.”
Today, the UNI School of Music is home to one of the best-known jazz studies program in the country. It was founded 67 years ago by a group of rebellious musicians who performed several underground jazz concerts before the music department finally bowed to the inevitable and embraced jazz. UNI was one of the first universities to have a formal jazz program.
Under Washut’s tenure, Jazz Band I recorded 11 CDs, earning several five-star ratings from DownBeat magazine, toured in Europe on three occasions, consistently took home top awards from collegiate jazz festivals throughout the Midwest and was awarded three “outstanding performance” citations in DownBeat’s annual student music award.
“Documenting the bands every year proved to be a cool thing to have done and a great marketing tool for bringing in students,” the music professor notes. “The European trips were important and taking the band out every year to a festival gave students a chance to see how they stacked up to other people around them.”
As a composer, he has received numerous commissions from ensembles, jazz artists and symphony orchestras. He also has served as jazz composer-in-residence at several universities and conducted all-state jazz bands in 16 states.
Well-known as a jazz pianist, Washut founded the Latin jazz band, Orquesta Alto Maiz in 1986. He left the band after 27 years, having recorded 10 CDs and performed internationally.
In addition, he has recorded several albums with other artists and composed and arranged Bobby Shew’s “Salsa Caliente” recording.
Washut was inducted into the Iowa IAJE Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Des Moines Hall of Fame in 2013. I, 2015, he received UNI’s distinguished scholar award and in 2014, was presented the College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences dean’s award for excellence in scholarship, research and creative activity.
One of the most satisfying aspects of his role was composing music for Jazz Band I and introducing them to contemporary jazz and music with a more ethnic bent. “We were one of the first to play (Duke) Ellington in college and the Latin thing was because of my interest in the music. I wanted the band to play authentic Latin music, not just the style. That challenged students, and it was appealing for audiences,” he says.
Washut composed songs for a 12-piece jazz band and recorded his new album in Colorado while on sabbatical leave from the university. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone a little and deal with musicians I didn’t know well or not at all. It was a cool thing to push my own envelope, and it was really nice to do a creative project at the highest level.”
“Journey to Knowhere,” which is receiving national radio airplay, can be purchased at Amazon and is downloadable at iTunes and CD Baby. Tunes from the disc will be performed at the Swan Song concert.
“I feel really lucky to have had a job like this where I really enjoyed going to work. I totally enjoyed being around the students and trying to raise their level of excellence. I want them to realize they can achieve more than they think they can,” Washut adds.