Jazz needs an audience—so Jared Sims is connecting WVU music students with the wider Morgantown scene.
There was a jazz scene in Morgantown back when Jared Sims was working on his undergrad at WVU in the mid-1990s. But, in his words, “it wasn’t very cohesive.” Musicians mostly hung out in cliques. There was no regular public jam session.
Things had changed significantly by the time he returned to Morgantown in 2016, when the university hired him to head up its jazz studies program. “I like it a lot more now. It’s more of a community,” Sims says.
Sims has made a point to integrate the jazz program into that community. Stop by Morgantown Brewing Company on any Thursday night while school is in session, and you’ll find music students jamming with music professors as well as players who have no formal training—they just know how to blow. There might even be a high school kid in the mix. “I’m trying not to lock out people who are new to the music,” Sims says. “It’s like running a football team. If I have all my star players graduate the next year, I don’t have anyone to fill those roles.”
Under Sims’ leadership, the WVU Big Band also plays regular dates at Black Bear Burritos’ Evansdale location. The shows are usually packed with people of all ages. And he’s now toying with the idea of playing jazz shows at high schools throughout the state. It’s all part of Sims’ efforts to get students to play for “people who aren’t their friends and parents,” he says.
Sims believes that, to prepare his students for careers as music professionals, they should be engaged in their art outside the classroom. When he was a student, Sims played sax as part of a traveling WVU spirit squad, representing the university at events across the state alongside other musicians, cheerleaders, and the Mountaineer mascot. It taught him valuable lessons about what it means to be a traveling musician—like how to ride in a car for three hours and get out ready to play.
Those lessons paid off. In addition to his career as an academic, Sims has appeared on dozens of recordings and played live with The Temptations, The Four Tops, Matisyahu, and 10,000 Maniacs, along with a host of other artists. His heart remains with jazz music, though, because it offers something other music doesn’t.
“If you go see a pop act, they’re going to sound the same no matter how many people are there,” he says. But no two jazz shows will ever be the same, thanks to the live, improvisational nature of the music. A band might play the same tunes night after night, but members will change keys, tempos, and the length of tunes depending on feedback from the audience. “It’s going to be a reflection of the people that are there.”
That live, improvisational nature will be on display at the 26th annual West Virginia Wine and Jazz Festival, coming September 21 and 22 to Camp Muffly on 4-H Camp Road just south of town.
Sims serves on the festival’s board and was in charge of booking acts for this year’s event. He says he’s proud of the diverse line-up. “It goes everything from vocal jazz and big bands to smooth jazz—and those are not the same at all.”
This year’s festival will feature R&B-influenced organ jazz by the Dave Braham Trio, another trio led by pianist James Fernando, and Washington, D.C., trombonist Reginald Cyntje, whose group fuses world rhythms with socially conscious lyrics. Jazz vocalist and WVU alum Sarah Barnes will also perform, as will groups of jazz students from WVU and West Virginia Wesleyan College. Sims will appear onstage as a member of both the WVU Faculty Jazz Quintet and Morgantown IX, a group comprised of players from the local jazz scene.
It’s all part of Sims’ continued effort to create the kind of music scene he wishes he’d had as a student. “It’s frightening that there are so many musicians who play to audiences of other musicians. That’s a recipe for extinction.” And extinction is not where Sims sees jazz heading. In fact, he thinks audiences might be more accepting of the genre—especially the flavors that blend in influences of electronic and world music—now than ever before.
“I’m trying to create jazz musicians, not for the year 1958, but for the present.”