Jazz Studies Program
Jazz at Southern Miss – Our History
The genesis of a jazz band at Southern Miss goes back to the early 1950’s. The newly appointed director of bands, Dr. Ray Mannoni recruited a number of musicians from the 313th Army Field Band to come to Mississippi Southern Teachers College to study music. Though not sanctioned by the school, a group of those students attending school on the G.I. Bill formed a band called the Golden Notes, later known as the Gold Notes, and they played performances as a working professional dance band for events and functions all over the gulf south region.
One early incarnation of the group included Jimmy Peters on tenor sax and vocals. Peters went on to become a Grammy Award winning composer of country music hits such as, “Before the Next Teardrop Falls” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’.” Tommy Senter who performed on trumpet went on to become a U.S. District judge, and guitarist Lloyd Wells who was a first call arranger in Nashville. Other members went on to notable careers as music educators and performers as well.
The fact that the group was not a school ensemble did not prevent some indirect involvement by members of the faculty. Some of the group’s arrangements included charts by faculty members such as Robert D. Hayes, composer of “Southern to the Top,” and Richard Prinshaw, both of whom were skilled jazz pianists.
In the mid 1950’s the band took on the name, The Southernaires and was led by a variety of people including Dr. Kent Sills (then a graduate student) who would later go on to a distinguished career as director of bands at Mississippi State University, and the Lions All State Band. Another student leader was army veteran and saxophonist Bill Lebergen. In the early 1960’s the band came under the direction of Dr. Norbert Carnovale, marking the first direct faculty involvement.
Carnovale was an accomplished classical and jazz trumpet performer and musicologist. He earned his undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University with some distinguished fellow classmates. Among them were jazz pianist and singer -Mose Alison, jazz trombonist - Carl Fontana, and jazz alto saxophonist - Al Belleto. He went on to earn his Master of Music at Columbia University in New York and performed with the Claude Thornehill Orchestra during that period. Carnovale finished his doctorate at the University of Iowa.
To be sure, jazz on campus was not something that was actively encouraged even into the 1960’s. The early versions of the band rehearsed after hours in an old metal building sandwiched between a former Army barracks (now the Math Zone) and a small power plant facility now known as the Powerhouse Restaurant. Later they met in the old band hall of the Fine Arts Building. Some former members tell stories of being threatened with being kicked out of school for practicing “jazz” in the building. Nonetheless, it did not stop the music and in 1963 the band even performed with jazz greats Carl Fontana, and Al Belletto as guests.
In the later half of the 1960’s the Jazz Studies Program was developed as an official school sanctioned program under the leadership of Raoul Jerome and the period of operating as a volunteer “stage band” came to a close. While Carnovale was the first faculty member to lead the band, followed briefly by Dr. Alan Drake, Jerome’s tenure marks a turning point for the band both in terms of its recognition as an official school ensemble, and the start of the program as it continues today.
Jerome joined the faculty as a trombone and theory teacher and took over the ensemble successfully converting the band into an ensemble for credit. He subsequently developed the jazz studies degree modeled after the program at his alma mater North Texas State University (UNT), which has a longstanding reputation as one of the best jazz programs in the world.
The band grew and developed into a very formidable ensemble under Jerome’s leadership and won several awards in the process. Jerome developed and directed the program until 1995 while simultaneously carrying a full load of Theory courses for the ever-growing School of Music. Growth is always a good thing, but as a result that load became unsustainable and in 1995 a new position was created focused on the jazz studies and music industry programs. The baton was handed over to Larry Panella, another UNT alum, who took the program into its next phase of development, which expanded improvisation offerings and the combo portion of the program, including the award winning Southern Miss Jazztet. The tradition, which began under Raoul Jerome’s leadership continues today and involves 2 full big bands, 5 to 6 combos, and a faculty jazz group.
As the School of Music and the university grew, that growth required new spaces to accommodate the increased activities. The Mannoni Performing Arts Center named after Dr. Raymond Mannoni was opened in 1972 and all of the large ensemble activities were housed in that facility. Fire protection in the community and for the campus was housed in a Hattiesburg Fire Department Substation located adjacent to the Mannoni Performing Arts Center. In the years following, westward campus expansion continued paralleling the city’s westward growth resulting in the construction of a new firehouse off of 38th Avenue and the old fire department sub station was turned over to the university.
In October of 2000, the jazz studies program moved into that building after renovations and the facility was renamed, The Jazz Station. It included a 1200 sq. ft. rehearsal space and three offices along with space for an extensive jazz record library. The building opened with a ceremony attended by university upper administrators, the Dean of the College or Arts, and the director of the School of Music and former “Southernaires” member, Dr. Charles Elliott as well as music faculty. The Jazz Lab Band 1 performed with Raoul Jerome taking a turn leading the band once again along with Panella. That facility became a busy place allowing for more rehearsal times, jam sessions, master classes, clinics, and senior jazz recitals. It seems almost prophetic that Jerome had his ensemble’s photo taken on one of the fire engines some twenty years earlier!
The Jazz Station as it became known, was the site of numerous rehearsals, clinics, and senior recitals and was buzzing with activity 7 days a week during the school year. One of the outgrowths of the jazz program were the combos including the award winning Jazztet, the longest running group in the program. Having a dedicated space allowed sudents to form their own groups and some began working in the region including the iconic Astrolab, a group that combined elements of jazz, funk and even Rap. Their promotional stickers managed to find their way onto various fixtures in the Jazz Station. “That atmosphere of creative collaboration is part of what makes the jazz program an exciting thing to be part of,” says Panella.
That atmosphere was to be briefly interrupted by a catastrophic turn of events, but it didn’t stop the music.
Big Accomplishments and Big Challenges – All in One Year!
The 2012-2013 school year was one of great highs and great lows. The Jazz Lab Band 1 was selected by audition to perform at the annual Jazz Education Network National Conference in Atlanta and the band prepared the entire fall semester to be razor sharp for their concert in January. The work showed as they gave a truly great performance to a very appreciative audience. But a full month did not pass before the low point hit.
On Sunday afternoon, February 10, 2013 an EF4 tornado came through Hattiesburg cutting a 16 mile path of destruction which ran right through the Southern Miss Campus. The Jazz Station was destroyed and the Mannoni PAC and the Fine Arts Building were also among the damaged buildings on campus. Thankfully no one was injured.
Panella recalls, “I was at home huddled in the hallway with my children waiting out the storm. Shortly after it passed I got a voicemail message from a colleague who had been rehearsing in the PAC. He said, ‘Larry, the Jazz Station is gone, just gone! The walls have been blown out and the roof ripped off and there is stuff everywhere.’ Then the text messages with photos started showing up on my phone. I couldn’t leave my family to come see it, and it was yet two more days before I could see it up close.”
The damage to the facility was irreparable. “I was thankful know one was hurt, but I was struggling to come to grips with it all. I spent the rest of the week trying to retrieve whatever was usable out of the wreckage. The smell of dampness and mustiness having penetrated everything was overwhelming at times and I went home physically exhausted and emotionally drained each day. Lots of people pitched in to help and encouraged me greatly. Without them I do not think I could have dealt with it all and gotten back to teaching. That was by far, the hardest time of my entire career.”
Thanks to the tireless work of Dr. Steven Moser, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Dr. Michael Miles, Director of the School of Music, the jazz program ended up in a temporary home in the old post office facility located in the oldest section of the student union building known as the HUB. “We were back up and running in the new space in little more than a week working hard to pull things together despite having lost a lot of equipment and music.” In addition, Panella’s garage became a drying unit with clotheslines full of hanging music, paperwork, along with ventilated shelves with more books and music and racks of records and whatever else could be salvaged. Two dehumidifiers and a fan ran 24/7 for a month to help save as much material as possible.
Despite all the challenges this disaster presented to the School of Music, things are moving forward towards placing the displaced jazz program in the lower floor of the Fine Arts Building. The new space will actually result in larger accommodations and the jazz band will rehearse in what was the band hall prior to the construction of the Mannoni Performing Arts Center. “We will end up with more square footage than we had in the jazz station and be able to improve our capabilities with more spaces in which to teach and practice,” said Panella.
He went on to say, “I have high hopes for where things are going for us and am grateful for Drs. Moser and Miles being such strong advocates for getting us back on track. That means a great deal to me personally and says volumes about their leadership. We will come back from this even better than before.”
Associate Director of the School of Music, Dr. Nicholas Ciraldo held a gathering at his house for faculty to decompress after being displaced and having to relocate in temporary dwellings on the north side of campus, an amalgam of trailers that came to be known as “Twister Town.” They presented Panella with a photograph – perhaps one of the only existing photos of the Jazz Station in its pre-tornado condition. “I was deeply touched by the gesture. It seems funny that I had never bothered to take a picture of the outside of the place in the 12 plus years I worked there! “ At the Jazz Lab Band’s last concert of the Spring semester the band members gave Panella the original fire station doorbell plaque that was on the front of the building signed by all the band members. “I was floored. All I can say is that I work with a great bunch of colleagues and students. It all means a great deal to me.”
Many distinguished alumni have come out of the jazz program and the details of some are highlighted on the Jazz Alumni News Page (insert link), but here are a few of the names who participated in the band during its history:
Tom “Bones” Malone – Multi instrumentalist for the David Letterman Show, The Blues Brothers, Saturday Night Live, The Cracker Jacks, and many more.
Jerome Gilmer – Denver based Composer and arranger for television, movies, commercials and more.
Steve Wiest – Grammy nominated composer/arranger/trombonist and newly appointed director of the UNT 1 O’Clock Jazz Lab Band as well as former distinguished member of Maynard Ferguson’s band.
Tom Brantley – Serves on the faculty of the University of South Florida and records and tours with the acclaimed group “Rhythm and Brass.”
Howie Joines – Broadway and touring company musical percussion specialist, conductor, and music coordinator who has worked with shows such as Ghost, Chaplin, Miss Saigon, and many more.
Ray Hair – Current American Federation of Musicians President and former head of Local #72, Dallas / Fort Worth, Hair did his Graduate studies at UNT and has worked as a professional drummer.
Jeff Myers – Bassist performer for popular artists such as Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, Laura Branigan, The Mama’s and the Papa’s, Sean Lennon, and more. While in New York he worked on Broadway shows and later moved to Los Angeles where he was active in television and film music.
Dr. Charles Elliott – Music Education professor at the University of South Carolina before joining the Southern Miss Faculty. He returned to Southern to bcome head the Music Education division and later became Director of the Southern Miss School of Music (retired).
Dr. Larry McWilliams – Director of the award winning Jazz Studies program at Ball State University (retired) and freelance professional trumpeter in both classical, commercial, and jazz settings including Henry Mancini, Frank Sinatra Jr., and many more.