Two weekends ago, I learned that another one of my personal heroes, Steve Zegree, passed away. After writing the memoriam for Ward Swingle, (http://acappellaquest.blogspot.com/2015/01/in-memoriam-ward-swingle.html) I had hoped that this would be the last memoriam I would have to write for a while, but Steve Zegree deserves, at the very least, his own blog post outlining why he will forever be one of the greats.
1) Published Music
One of the great things about Steve Zegree was his arrangements. Zegree was a master jazz musician (piano was his instrument) but more than that, he knew how to write music for a specific purpose. His arrangements ranged from extremely difficult, like the Westminster commissioned “They Say It’s Wonderful” to extremely accessible, like his arrangement of “Blue Skies.” Notice how I said accessible, not easy. To perform jazz music, an ensemble must understand the fundamental aspects of jazz like the swing rhythm, the high voicings, the difficult tritones, and the use of improvisation. Steve Zegree excelled in writing accessible arrangements for ensembles who were not familiar with the jazz genre. Zegree even wrote in his scores that an ensemble could sound just as qualified as a professional jazz choir if they followed his arrangements. In summation, Zegree’s arrangements educated, as well as entertained.
The book I consider to be the gold standard of vocal jazz how-to-manuals is Zegree’s book, “The Complete Guide To Vocal Jazz.” In his book, he outlines the basics of vocal jazz arrangements and how to construct a vocal jazz choir when you have little-to-no experience. There are many other books that are just as fascinating a read, including Paris Rutherford’s book “The Vocal Jazz Ensemble” and Michele Weir’s book “Vocal Improvisation,” but my experience has always favored Zegree’s book.
Fun fact: He has another book, “The WOW Factor” which is just as good a read.
3) Jazz Education
I was fortunate enough to spend a week with Zegree at his Vocal Jazz camp in 2008. In that short span of time, and with the help of his staff including Michele Weir, Vijay Singh, Diana Spradling, and Duane Davis, I learned more about vocal jazz in that one week than I ever knew before, and I thought I knew a lot. Turns out, I was very wrong and Zegree set me straight. He spent five minutes with me discussing my conducting of the jazz choir and it was the greatest, most eye-opening five minutes of my career.
4) Gold Company
One of the many things Zegree leaves behind in his legacy is Gold Company, a fantastic vocal jazz choir that remains at the top of their game, even after Zegree left for Indiana. The Gold Company is the model to use if you’re looking for vocal jazz choirs to emulate. I still listen to their records today.
5) Work their asses off
The very first time I met Steve Zegree was at the 2007 ACDA regional convention in Michigan. I knew of his success and wanted to understand how he could train his choirs to sing even the most complicated music, music I thought to be impossible for all but a very select few choirs around the world. I thought there was a secret to rehearsing a Gene Puerling tune as opposed to rehearsing an easier, more standard arrangement.
His response was perfect: “I work their asses off.”
I can still remember the inflection in his tone, the smile across his face. There was no secret. Rehearsing a Gene Puerling tune and rehearsing anything you consider to be easier (which compared to Gene Puerling, is almost anything) involves exactly the same procedures, but the harder tunes require more work.
It seems like such an easy concept to grasp today and a lot of you might be reading this thinking “Well, DUH.” But as a fresh-faced kid out of college, this wasn’t as clear as it is now. Steve Zegree set me right.
Rest In Peace Dr. Zegree. Thank you for all that you have done.