Blowing it, big time
Chico State Jazz Studies professor and trumpeter Rocky Winslow has played with the big names
Monk’s Wine Lounge in downtown Chico is a fitting location to sit and talk for hours with a jazz musician. And, with Miles Davis and John Coltrane playing over the stereo system in the background, being in the presence of trumpeter and Chico State Director of Jazz Studies Rocky Winslow is a comfortable thing. The tousled-haired, easy-going single father (of 11-year-old daughter, Roxanne) emanates kindness, attentiveness and a certain boyish-yet-worldly charm as he discusses his rather interesting life.
Winslow’s curriculum vitae includes such accomplishments as playing on The Tonight Show, on Comedy Central’s Viva Variety, a 2000 tour of Japan with The Temptations and The Supremes, as well as backing up Wayne Newton on a number of songs on the soundtrack for Chevy Chase’s Vegas Vacation. He’s still in his early 40s, yet Winslow has played with an astounding collection of performers, including: Chaka Khan, jazz legend Maynard Ferguson, Natalie Cole, Burt Bacharach, former Bill Evans bassist-extraordinaire Eddie Gomez and comedian (and good friend) Drew Carey.
Though he comes across as quite humble and matter-of-fact while running down this list, it’s hard not to be impressed.
In addition to the more exotic experiences, Winslow’s résumé includes time as an assistant professor and director of Jazz Studies at the University of Las Vegas (1991-2002), clinician and performer at Scotland’s Edinburgh International Jazz Festival in May 2000, and guest conductor for the Arkansas Music Educator’s Association’s No. 1 All-State Jazz Ensemble in February of this year.
Born in Texarkana, Winslow is the son of a band director father and an English teacher mother. His father, Roger, was inducted in 1995 into the Texas Bandmasters Hall of Fame, a fact which makes Winslow particularly proud. “Both of my brothers are band directors,” Winslow adds, “and both of their wives, too. I did grow up in a band environment.”
Winslow leads Chico State’s 20-piece big band, the high-powered Jazz X-Press—which features such fine student players as Chingus drummer Zack Bowden, Jazz Studies graduate student and pianist Shigemi Minetaka, tenor sax player Adam Walter, and bassist Nate Strock—and a number of smaller ensembles as well. Winslow describes Jazz X-Press as a “progressive big band that represents the history of big band literature,” but also performs new compositions. “My main goal in the future is to have student compositions [added to the performance repertoire],” he adds. Under Winslow’s influence, Jazz X-Press concerts have featured special guest artists, such as phenomenal young trumpeter Greg “Gizzy” Gisbert (who, incidentally, goes on tour with Dizzy Gillespie in September). The Nov. 5 Jazz X-Press concert will feature extraordinary Colorado tenor sax player John Gunther.
Chico State music professor David Colson was chair of the search committee who hired Winslow in the Fall 2002 as assistant professor of music and director of Jazz Studies. Winslow has gone on to teach Jazz History, Jazz Improvisation and Applied Lessons on all instruments and in jazz composition, in addition to being in charge of the Combos and Big Band programs. “Nobody could be in that position but [Rocky],” Colson asserted. “We watched the way he worked [as part of the interview process] with the big band, with Jazz X-Press. He’s a fabulous musician. He can play anything on the trumpet. But I really think that his greatest gifts are [those] of a teacher,” Colson continued, “He’s able to easily inspire people to work for something greater than what is normally expected of themselves. … He has an incredible sensitivity to knowing what [teaching] approach will work with different people. … He doesn’t abandon people, doesn’t give up. It’s a real noble quality you don’t often find [in a teacher].”
Colson notes that since Winslow came to Chico State, he’s seen “a purification of the [jazz studies] program” and says that Winslow “has been the person to bring the fullest picture of what American jazz is to this university” because of his extensive experience as a working musician.
Winslow goes on Canadian tour Sept. 13-27 with singer Paul Anka, with whom he first started playing in Las Vegas, and in his absence, grad student Minetaka will take over his Improv class. Minetaka speaks highly of her teacher: “Rocky is a natural guru … As a person … he’s very open, honest, funny, wild and sweet. An exotic figure. We love Rocky.”
Winslow likewise praises Anka: “The main thing with Paul, because I’ve played with him for 14 years … is that the energy that he puts into his show is intense. He doesn’t take anything off the stage when he’s done. He’s left it all on that stage. Paul is the real thing.”
Looking back fondly on his entire time in Vegas, Winslow says, “The nice thing about going to that city was that I got so much playing experience. During my time in Las Vegas, I was playing in every [casino] house orchestra. It would be rare to have less than two or three gigs a night. I had three nights off [of playing] in three years. I was also recording and teaching full time.” Winslow laughs and adds: “It got a little busy!”
It was in Las Vegas that Winslow amassed a large chunk of his lengthy list of impressive performance credits—playing with David Cassidy and Sheena Easton “At the Copa” show in the Rio Resort’s Copacabana Showroom eight times weekly for over a year, and in 2000, backing up Anka as part of Anka’s top-notch accompanying big band for the PBS special Night of a Lifetime, filmed at the Mirage Hotel, with a DVD that followed, Music My Way.
It was also in Vegas, while Winslow was playing a regular late-night gig at the Riviera with the Lon Bronson All-Stars, that he first met comedian Carey. “Drew would come hear us play all the time, and we became friends.” Carey flew him out to Hollywood in 1999 to give him a trumpet lesson so he could solo over the song “L.O.V.E.” on his television show.
Because of his friendship with Carey, Winslow was invited at one point to a Henry Mancini fund-raiser at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in Hollywood. He recalls driving to Hefner’s place in his old Toyota pickup: “I got to pull up in the driveway of Hef’s house in that old, beat-up truck. I had to talk into an intercom-in-a-rock to identify myself; then I got clearance to come in.” Winslow chuckles at the funny picture he’s described, adding, in reference to the guy who got him into such a scenario: “Oh yeah, Drew’s great!”
Two of the original songs on Winslow’s CD Simple Complications (Cambria Records, 2000) are “Blues for Drew,” written as a thank-you to Carey for his valued friendship, as well as “She Was Only Dreaming,” written for his daughter. Winslow’s mentor and fellow world-class trumpeter Bobby Shew writes in the CD’s liner notes: “I was totally impressed by Rocky’s success in achieving a world-class level of playing. … In addition, his compositions are exciting and memorable. … [Rocky] is proof that ‘Those who can’t play, teach!’ is a false statement in our musical world.”