Sitting back in his chair, his legs crossed at the ankles, Adam Donohue lets his fingers dance over the keys of his tenor saxophone, producing a gorgeous kaleidoscope of audible color.
It’s just after noon in the basement of Kimbrough Hall, and the WSU Jazz Big Band is sight-reading director Greg Yasinitsky’s 1989 chart of “I Mean You.” Two visitors, a father and son on a campus tour from Kodiak, Alaska, smile and nod as the trumpets take off on an exhilarating riff. A little later it’s the bass player’s turn to shine.
Wow!” says Yasinitsky at the coda, a smile lighting his face. Then he delves back into the nitty gritty details of the arrangement, listening again to troublesome passages and going to the chalkboard to explain the notation behind a particular rhythm he is trying to express.
Yasinitsky’s reputation as a jazz composer is a big reason why Donohue came to WSU two years ago. A professional musician for seven years, with an undergraduate degree in jazz composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Donohue knew that if he was going to return to college, he wanted to work with musicians who are among the best in the business.
In fact, he waited three years to enroll at WSU because that’s how long it took for a jazz teaching assistant position to open up. Now that he’s here, he’s extending his two-year program to three.
“That says a lot,” he said, and laughed.
Graduate student John Gronberg is another musician who found his way to WSU after years of playing his trumpet with the most polished professional musicians in the country. Already an accomplished performer (one of the very best on the West Coast, according to a colleague) Gronberg’s goal is to earn a graduate degree that will allow him to teach at the college level. But, he said, even his trumpet playing has improved, thanks to the mentoring of WSU professor David Turnbull.
“He knows more about trumpet playing than anybody on the planet,” Gronberg said. “Even at this late date I’m learning something.”
And, he said, studying composition with Yasinitsky has been incredible.
“I just think he’s a genius at it,” Gronberg said. “It’s like breathing in and out for him.”
Ask Gronberg, Donohue or other music students about the WSU jazz faculty and words like “genius,” “brilliant” and “absolutely invaluable” pepper the conversation, attaching themselves to not only Yasinitsky and Turnbull, but Horace Alexander Young, Anthony Taylor, Dave Snider, Dave Jarvis and Charles Argersinger.
Yasinitsky, who joined WSU in 1982, said jazz hasn’t always been the thriving program it is now — with one faculty ensemble as well as 75 to 100 students participating in two student jazz bands, a vocal jazz group and as many as five different student combos, depending on the semester.
“When I came here, I was it,” he said.
But the program has grown over the years not only in size but in reputation. At last year’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, WSU students received more awards than any other college. Some years, Yasinitsky says, WSU wins more awards than all the other colleges combined.
And the recognition isn’t just regional. For the past five years, JAZZIZ magazine has created a CD featuring student musicians from the top jazz programs in the country, and every year WSU has been represented, right along with students from Julliard, Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. WSU students also have been singled out for recognition by Down Beat magazine.
Yasinitsky likes to say that the secret to being a good professor is having good students. But even he sometimes marvels at the wealth of musical talent WSU has amassed.
”There are a lot of brilliant people on this faculty,” he said, “as good as you’d hear anywhere.”
While they share a love of jazz, they also bring varied talents to the program.
“No one does 100 percent jazz,” Yasinitsky said. “A lot of people here were hired because they can do more than one thing. These people are all very strong classical musicians as well.”
Gus Kambeitz, now the head of jazz studies at West Valley College, left the San Francisco Bay Area and a successful professional career to earn his master’s degree at WSU in 2001.
“Greg was mainly the reason,” he said, but the whole department was impressive. “That school was by far the best I found,” he said and he continues to be a supporter. In fact, he’s the one who first told Gronberg about the program.
Sometimes Bay Area musicians think they are the center of the jazz universe and everyone else is Siberia, he said, but he begs to differ. “I say, uh no, there are some guys up in Pullman….”