Sounds of the summer: NAU trumpet professor talks about his love of jazz

Stephen Dunn conducting

With the start of the 2018 Summer Concert Series at Heritage Square in downtown Flagstaff and plenty of other opportunities to enjoy music at Flagstaff’s outdoor venues this summer, Northern Arizona University trumpet professor Stephen Dunn talked to NAU News about jazz, his first musical love and one of the sounds of the summer.

What sets jazz apart from other genres of music?

Many things, including the unique time feel of swing and most notably, the high level of improvisation—although based on tunes that are pre-composed, most of what one hears at a jazz concert is being improvised on the spot.

Why has its popularity lasted so long?

Jazz in the 1940s and 1950s was truly popular—most people listened to jazz. Since that time, it has become a bit more exclusive in that more modern jazz doesn’t always have the immediate appeal to everyone as it did in the big band era. Rather, it takes a little higher understanding to appreciate what is happening in the music, but those who are modern jazz enthusiasts usually appreciate the music on an intellectual level, adding to the overall aesthetic experience of listening to great jazz music. Jazz has lasted because it is highly artistic and often of very high quality.

How did you get started playing jazz music?

I started playing in a jazz band in junior high school. It met after school, so I missed the bus and the music would linger in my mind for the entire three-mile walk home and often for several hours after arriving home. It was my experience in jazz band that made me want to pursue music as a career. Since then, I have changed my focus away from jazz, but I never would have pursued music so seriously without having those early jazz band experiences.

What do you like about it?

I like the spontaneity of improvisation and the way a band can work together to create something greater than the sum of the individual parts. There is something akin to magic involved in the process and when it happens, that is my favorite part.

What are your favorite numbers? 

As an improviser, I like freer forms and modal music, giving the performers lots of room for creativity and interaction. As a band leader, I like the gamut, from Duke Ellington to Maria Schneider.

NAU Communications