2017 WCGF Jazz Winner Interviews

The jazz division judges for the 2017 Wilson Center Guitar Festival included guitarist, composer and former Music Director of The Tonight Show Band, Kevin Eubanks, Hal Leonard jazz instructional series author Mike DeRose, Milwaukee-based jazz guitarists Jack Grassel, Steve Lewandowski, Don Linke, Bob Monagle and Wisconsin Conservatory of Music faculty member, Paul Silbergliet.

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In this group photo of the 2017 Wilson Center Guitar Festival winners, the Jazz Division winners are as follows: Cecil Alexander stands 6th in from the right; Matt Landon stands 4th from the right, and Jocelyn Gould stands 3rd from the right. Headlining artist and competition judge Kevin Eubanks stands front, center. Photo credit: Julia Crowe.

Cecil Alexander, who is from Muskegon, Michigan, won 1st place in the Jazz division for this year’s event. He began playing guitar at 8, inspired by his father’s music collection, which introduced him to the sounds of artists such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Wes Montgomery. What struck Alexander from hearing these artists is that they had the ability to create an emotional response from audiences that transcended genres, which is something he strives to keep in mind as a burgeoning composer and improviser. He is a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music.

“I heard about the competition from a friend who was thinking about applying. I was initially very nervous about it because I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea of a guitar ‘competition, but after the first couple of minutes in the warm-up room backstage with the other competitors, I realized what a great opportunity it was to meet all these fantastic musicians from around the world. I made so many new friends within those couple of days, and I left feeling inspired to apply all the new things that I learned.

 

“My mom, sister and wife came with me to the competition. While I was backstage warming up for my performance, they all kept coming backstage after each competitor played to ask if I was nervous, and that ended up making me even more nervous! Thankfully, the anxiety subsided once I actually got onstage, and I felt very calm knowing that they were there supporting me.

“Shortly after I started playing guitar, I made the decision to pursue a career in music. I initially made this decision because it was something that I had so much fun doing, but after a while, I became aware of the way that music can make you feel. It can make you laugh and cry and can even send chills up your back. I came to realize that my favorite performers could have this effect on an audience seemingly at will, and it is a goal of mine to be able to do this some day.

“I’m starting a Master’s program in Jazz Studies at William Paterson University this fall, with the hopes of learning as much as I can about this music, and being able to find my own creative voice within the genre.

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Matt Landon, who recently earned his Masters of Music in jazz studies from the University of Northern Colorado, won 2nd place in the Jazz division. His modern jazz/rock group, Desolation Row, won a Downbeat Magazine Student Music Award in 2012 and he placed third in the 2013 Montreux International Jazz Guitar Competition.

“I heard about this competition by searching ‘jazz guitar competitions’ on Google and it was one of the first ones that popped up. I was wrapping up my Master’s degree at the University of Northern Colorado and I wanted something to work toward over the summer. After looking into it and doing a little research, I got excited about it, threw together an audition video, and applied later that day.

“I had an absolute blast. This was my first time competing in the Wilson Center Guitar Competition and I doubt it’ll be my last. All 16 of the jazz semi-finalists were set to warm up in the same fairly small room, which could’ve made for pretty heavy ‘vibing,’ had any of the competitors been bad apples, but instead we all became friends and joked around and showed each other different techniques, or discussed our equipment. It was a very laid back and amiable atmosphere. I’ve done other competitions where that was not the case, so I was very thankful for that.

 

“When I was waiting for the results of the semifinal round, I was playing some music in the main exhibition area and jazz guitarist Jack Grassel surprised me by complimenting my guitar playing. I wasn’t aware that he was even affiliated with this competition, but I had taken a memorable lesson with him at Western Illinois University as a high school student, over a decade ago, and remembered his face. I told him this and his response was, “Well, was it a good lesson?” I laughed, seeing that he obviously didn’t remember me, and told him that it was a great lesson.

“He asked me if I was competing, and I said yeah, in the jazz category. He told me he had been one of the judges behind the curtain and asked me what I played, because he might remember, even though he had just sat through 16 completely different performances. I sang him a little snippet of the melody of the original piece I had performed and he said he knew which competitor I was and that he hoped I did well in the competition. After that, we had a nice talk about the importance of diet and staying healthy. He was very kind and personable.

“Playing guitar, to me, is almost more of a compulsion or obsession than it is a love. I love playing the guitar, but that’s not why I do it. Frankly, I play because it’s what I do, and I don’t feel right, physically or mentally, if I don’t. It’s therapeutic for me.  What I love about it is the immediacy of expression–how I don’t have to worry about finding the correct words to explain how I feel, I can just touch the strings in a way that expresses it, or play a chord that communicates it. I’ve always loved connecting with people on a basic human level, and performing improvised music is one of the most satisfying and effective ways to do that. You’re baring your soul to an audience who, in turn, examines it, and each person derives something completely different from the experience. That kind of vulnerability is scary sometimes, but it’s always thrilling. Connecting with an audience who then gives back to you their response is one of the greatest feelings in the world.  I feel the guitar is the voice that allows me to communicate who I really am. Also, guitars just look and sound super cool, right?

“I would love to lead my own band, playing my own original material and have performing and recording career. But I also love teaching! I’m planning to obtain my doctorate within the next five years, the end goal of that being a full-time professorship in a well-respected jazz program. I would be very happy if I was a professor for 9 months out of the year and a full-time performer for the remaining 3 months.  I also plan to record and release some singer-songwriter material. I love folk music and singing, and writing songs, so it would be nice if that was also a part of my career. Apart from the guitar? I want to learn carpentry so I can build my own house. I also want to learn gardening and farming techniques so I can grow my own food, like my grandfather did. And someday, years down the road, maybe I’d like to try to write a novel or two, but I need to live a lot more life before I’m ready for that.

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Guitarist Jocelyn Gould, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, won 3rd place in the Jazz division. She cites Joe Pass, Grant Green, Barney Kessel and Wes Montgomery as a few of her major influences on the instrument. In addition to being an avid composer, Jocelyn is passionate about the American Song Book and repertoire of jazz standards. She is currently pursuing her masters degree in Jazz Studies at Michigan State University, where she studies with Randy Napoleon.

“I learned of this competition from my teacher at Michigan State University, Randy Napoleon. He suggested that I start taking part in some competitions, and this was the first one that came up that seemed like it would be a good fit.

“I had a wonderful experience competing. I must admit that I was skeptical as to whether I would enjoy something that seems as unnatural as a music competition, but the whole weekend had a very inclusive vibe and a comradely atmosphere rather than competition. I loved meeting all of the other guitarists, and I think that I have met some peers who will last throughout my career. It was really rewarding getting to spend a weekend with so many people who love jazz guitar as much as I do.

“I think that being the only woman in the jazz category, and I believe one of only three women in the entire competition, made my experience unique by default. I was blown away by the support that I felt from the organizers of the event, the locals, and the competitors and their parents. I was able to have several conversations with local folks who had come out to watch the competition who expressed how great it was to see women playing guitar and playing jazz. Women who were significantly older than me, in particular, were rooting for me, perhaps because when they were my age, they weren’t as likely to see women competing in this type of competition. It was really cool to feel all of that support, because in 2017 it’s definitely time for more talented women guitarists.

“Another great experience that I had was to be able to sit in and play on Kevin Eubank’s master class. We played a little bit of duo and I got to play some solo guitar for him, and it was really rewarding to get to interact one on one with one of the guitar greats of today.

“I love playing because it is how I feel I am able to best contribute to the world. I want to be able to give people the same emotional experience I have when I hear a song or the work of a musician that I love. Music has consistently been one of the most important parts of my life for as long as I can remember, and I think the guitar is a beautiful instrument because it is used in so many genres of music. It is easily transportable and they don’t necessarily cost a lot of money. I also feel like the guitar brings people together.

“My dream as far as playing goes is to be able to truly communicate on the instrument. In my opinion, technique and proficiency are just tools that need to be acquired in order to be able to express yourself on the instrument, but they are not an end goal. When I hear my favorite guitarists play, I’m always impressed by how they were able to use their playing to reach me on an emotional level, and it’s my goal to be able to do that for others.

“It’s my goal to make a career out of playing the guitar. I am a very social person and I love working with and meeting people and playing music with them.”

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Please visit the official Wilson Center Guitar Festival page for more information, in addition to forthcoming details on the 2018 event.