It had been nearly 20 years since the last Fresno State Jazz Festival, and after a day of performances by visiting schools, the main concert began in the Fresno State Concert Hall on the evening of Nov. 29. Richard Giddens, Director of Jazz Studies for the Fresno State Department of Music directed the Fresno State Jazz Orchestra which was followed by guest artists Doug Weiss on the bass, Melissa Aldana playing the saxophone, and Colin Stranahan behind the drums.

Jazz Orchestra play at the 2018 Fresno State Jazz Festival
Fresno State Jazz Orchestra

Ahead of the event, Giddens said he was very excited about the Doug Weiss’ trio. “They are going to blow these kid’s minds!”

Hints of what was in store came as the trio first joined the Fresno State Jazz Orchestra for several songs. Weiss’ bold bass skills combined with the dynamics of Stranahan’s ability to play intricate rhythms at any volume served as a base to the orchestra as Aldana waited and allowed students to shine.

Guest artists Colin Stranahan on the drums and Doug Weiss on the bass join the Fresno State Jazz Orchestra
Guest artists Colin Stranahan on the drums and Doug Weiss on the bass join the Fresno State Jazz Orchestra

“Fresno State Jazz Orchestra peaked… at the Awards Ceremony Concert. Hearing them step up to play with the guest trio was phenomenal,” said Giddens.

The Doug Weiss Trio
The Doug Weiss Trio

After the Fresno State Orchestra left the stage, the trio remained to play a set of jazz standards. That’s when Aldana turned on. It was during their second song as she quivered her saxophone before diving into a deep arching tone that it happened. Two students in the audience rolled their heads back and looked at each other with smiles and wide eyes as the rest of the audience cheered and whooted. It appeared that those kids’ minds had just been blown.

Guest artist Melissa Aldana on the saxophone
Guest artist Melissa Aldana on the saxophone

The Fresno State Jazz Festival began early on Nov. 29 as 18 middle school, high school, and community college bands descended on the campus. A day of back-to-back performances was broken up by guest artist Doug Weiss who taught a jazz class to a couple hundred students.

“Doug leading the masterclass in Wahlberg was incredible, it was a must see. He is pure elegance and class,” said Richard Giddens, Director of Jazz Studies for the Fresno State Department of Music. “An amazing educator to boot!”

Doug Weiss leads masterclass in Wahlberg Recital Hall

During the concert awards and scholarships to the Stanford Jazz Workshop, Lafayette Summer Jazz Workshop, La Sierra Creative Arts Camp, and to the summer program of the Milestones Jazz Workshop were announced. The Jazz Festival was sponsored through on-air promotion by KFSR.

Doug Weiss on the bass
Doug Weiss on the bass

The revival of the Fresno State Jazz Festival was led by the Music Department’s new Director of Jazz Studies Richard Giddens, who was promoted ahead of the Fall 2018 semester.

“Professor Giddens is a powerhouse of inspiration and talent, and I am certain he will take Jazz Studies to an unprecedented level of excellence,” said Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.  “Jazz has a unique rhythm and sound, and its nature reflects the power of diversity as it bursts with spontaneous inspiration.  Jazz is crucial to our Valley region, as a genre of music that creates a space in which we can all celebrate each other. “

Jazz Festival poster

As a Fresno native, Giddens says he is eager to lead the program into a new era and envisions Fresno State as a destination for young jazz musicians to explore and find their voices as artists.

“When I was in high school we used to have the Billy Higgins Jazz Festival, I got to see so many amazing artists come through town. I’d love to give back that opportunity to our community,” said Giddens.

Richard GiddensRichard Giddens on his bass

For Giddens, reviving the jazz festival is part of his plan to make the Fresno State jazz the flagship program in the Central Valley. He is excited about bringing students interested in jazz and improvisation to the campus and believes the festival will be a powerful recruitment tool to advance the program to be the creative hub he envisions.

“I am excited to have our faculty and staff meet and work with the jazz students in the Central Valley. Growing a bond for jazz and improvisation that hasn’t occurred in way too long,” said Giddens.

Richard Giddens conducts the Fresno State Jazz Orchestra
Richard Giddens conducts the Fresno State Jazz Orchestra

Giddens love for jazz began when he received bass for Christmas when he was in the 8th grade. He joined the Bullard Talent jazz band and went on to the Roosevelt School of the Arts where he was able to play with some of the best young musicians in Fresno.

He moved to NYC at 17 after receiving a full scholarship to the Jazz and Contemporary Music Program at The New School for Social Research. After many years on the road with STOMP and various bands, he earned his BFA and MFA from California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA where he studied with Charlie Haden for 5 years.

He has gone on to perform throughout the world with artists such as Ravi Coltrane, Mary Halvorson, Ben Wendel, Walter Smith III, Robert Glasper, Wadada Leo Smith, Ralph Alessi, Larry Goldings, Ideal Bread, Burning Ghosts, Joe LaBarbara, The Lost and Found Orchestra, and many others. He is also a Tzadik and Orenda Records recording artist with debut album “Mimosas” featuring Matt Otto, Adam Benjamin, Storm Nilson, and Tomas Fujiwara.

Richard GiddensRichard Giddens

“I have been incredibly fortunate to perform, record and become friends with some of the best musicians in the world. I plan to bring in many of these artists to inspire and play music for, and with, the students here at Fresno State,” said Giddens.

The Fresno State Jazz Festival is an integral part of a broader vision of a flourishing jazz program. The College of Arts and Humanities invites the public to the campus to enjoy this exciting era which is certain to be an Inspiration for Life.