Top Jazz Singer Teaches and Performs at UTEP

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

The glam and glitter of the music biz can make it difficult for an aspiring instrumentalist or performer to truly prepare herself for the ups and downs of the profession. That’s why an opportunity to get candid with a seasoned and successful pro can make all the difference for students considering music – especially in the more commercial realm – as their bread and butter.

Last week, UTEP music students and El Paso at large had the opportunity to get up close and personal with top-selling, highly acclaimed jazz vocalist Jackie Ryan through a series of events including a performance Q&A, master class, and big band concert.Jackie Ryan performs with the UTEP Faculty Jazz Combo on April 29. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceJackie Ryan performs with the UTEP Faculty Jazz Combo on April 29. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

This year alone, Ryan has successfully held the #1 album spot on the JazzWeek charts for four weeks while continuing to enchant audiences around the world with her 3½ octave range and engaging stage presence. Both were evident on the afternoon of Monday, April 29, when Ryan performed with the Department of Music Faculty Combo led by Erik Unsworth and featuring lecturer Shaun Mahoney on guitar, professor Greg Luffey on saxophone, adjunct professor Demetrius Williams on drums, and guest performer Reggie Moore on piano.

“These are the kinds of times and events that we thrive on to feed off of the talent and expertise of various kinds of people,” said Lowell Graham, D.M.A., chair of UTEP’s Department of Music, when introducing Ryan and the combo.

The set included the chance to watch Ryan gracefully work her way through some microphone and sound mishaps, plus insightful history and technique lessons on numbers by Gershwin, Jobim, and more. Ryan then opened up the floor to questions from more than 50 students, faculty, and staff who had gathered in the recital hall. Ryan volunteered great back story during the set, talking about how her loyalty to her Mexican heritage (her mother was from Acapulco and Ryan always sang Mexican music as a tribute to that start) created a dilemma when deciding whether or not to put any songs in Spanish on her first album.

“I was worried about putting a Mexican song on a jazz CD, but now I put a Spanish song on all of my CDs and I don’t worry about what you’re supposed to do. I would advise you to be who you are – that’s where success comes from. It’s all music, so whatever turns you on, do that!”

When asked about how to attain success in the music business, Ryan cautioned students to be persistent and not allow setbacks to dominate their dreams. She also reframed the definition of success, describing what she has pursued throughout her lengthy career.

“I don’t like the goal of ‘I’m gonna be a star.’ I think the goal is ‘I’m gonna be the best musician I can be.’ There’s a freedom in that.” Other sage wisdom shared by Ryan included thoughts on the recording process, how to communicate with a musical ensemble when performing, ways to keep the voice in top shape while on the road, and very simple yet critical tips on how to breathe while singing.

When asked about what her visit to UTEP meant to her, Ryan said, “I think there’s no higher thing than to teach. It gives me a lot to tell them what I have to share. It feeds me a lot, too. Often, it has happened that I’ll be teaching and I’ll get something that I hadn’t thought of from a student.”

Ryan’s visit to UTEP culminated with a public performance on April 30 at the Fox Fine Arts Recital Hall. She performed big band numbers alongside the UTEP Jazz Ensemble, getting the audience involved by asking them to echo back lyrics for “Anything Goes” and pulling out forever favorites like “Besame Mucho.” Standing ovations followed both of Ryan’s performances; she received them with modesty and gratitude, demonstrating great lessons in professionalism and class for music students hoping to follow in her footsteps.

In a recent review of Ryan’s performance at the legendary Vitello’s jazz and supper club, former Los Angeles Times jazz writer Don Heckman said, “Her performance could well have served as a virtual seminar in song for vocal classes in university jazz programs around the world.” And now, UTEP students are lucky enough to know that firsthand.