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Friends University jazz director’s students find the stage is a standard

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, June 27, 2014, at 11:02 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, June 28, 2014, at 12:42 a.m.


Jazz students onstage

Friends University Jazz Director Lisa Hittle does most of the booking for jazz gigs in Wichita. She mostly books her students to play and doesn't to book anything that won't pay a fair wage. The students not only get a chance to practice live performances, but they also get enough regular gigs to pay for bills instead of getting a side job outside of their musical focus. (Video by Fernando Salazar)

Lisa Hittle has made performing a practice for her jazz students for more than a decade.

Hittle, a Friends University jazz director, has booked her students and co-faculty to play regular gigs at private events and Larkspur Bistro and Bar for about 14 years. Within the past two years she has added YaYa’s EuroBistro, Hereford House and the Hotel at Old Town to her regular bookings.

The gigs are an opportunity for young musicians to develop skills playing standards in the jazz repertoire, she said.

“She’s selfless, and she just wants students to get experiences performing,” said Tat Hidano, a 2011 Friends graduate and drummer. “Having someone like that early on in your career is wonderful.

“I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing without her. Every student of hers would say the same.”

Hittle not only takes care of what is usually a headache for restaurant owners by booking reliable musicians, she does it for free, said Ty Issa, who owns the restaurants Hittle books for along with his brothers, Mike and Ali.

“You’d think she would charge a fee, but she doesn’t ask for money,” he said. “We ask her, but she smiles and says, ‘Don’t worry about it. I just want to keep my students busy playing.’

“She’s happy to find a place for her musicians, and the musicians are good.”

Hittle is also happy to hold to her standard for booking the gigs: decent pay.

A self-described “old school, mainstream player,” she sits squarely on one side of the age-old debate argued among jazz musicians – and musicians of all genres: to play for money, or to play for something else like experience, exposure or fun.

“People see us having fun playing music and they think it’s our primary motivation, but it’s a profession,” said Hittle, an alumna of the renowned Stan Kenton Orchestra. “One that takes years of hard work to learn.

“I train students to become professional musicians. You don’t train doctors to go out and do surgeries for free.”

Where musicians stand on the pay-versus-exposure debate depends on where they come from, said Beau Jarvis, a 2002 Friends graduate who is now an adjunct professor of jazz at the school. While the work Hittle books pays musicians a decent wage to play traditional standards, he said, many Wichita jazz musicians also book gigs where they can play original works or stretch their creativity – even if the gig doesn’t pay.

Other venues like Mort’s Martini and Cigar Bar, he said, provide great paid opportunities for progressive musicians who want to play with more edge.

For students who are “building chops,” however, the types of gigs Hittle books help young musicians develop. By giving them those opportunities, Hittle has contributed to the success of traditional jazz repertoire in Wichita, Jarvis said.

“It’s about striking a balance, but in the end, having more live performances is just a good thing,” he said. “It just allows more music to be made.”

Mark Foley, professor of bass and music theory at Wichita State University, said he has played gigs booked by Hittle. Though he differentiates between restaurant gigs and other jazz performances, Hittle is a supporter of jazz and live music in general, he said.

“I think of her as a real booster of jazz and a real booster of live music,” he said. “If you hear live music downtown it probably has something to do with her.”

William Flynn, who will be an assistant professor of jazz guitar at WSU in August, said that while there are other gigs that can be more creatively fulfilling, the restaurant work Hittle gets her students is a great teaching tool.

“It’s rare that you find opportunities like that as a student,” he said.

Paying the bills

In addition to the opportunity to practice live performance onstage in front of a real audience, the money Hittle’s gigs pay are a reliable wage her students use to cover living expenses, she said.

“For a lot of students, that’s the way they live,” she said. “Even if they get scholarships to pay for school, they use the gig money for rent, to buy food and to pay bills.”

David Lord, a 2004 Friends graduate and now owner of Air House Music Academy in west Wichita, said Hittle booking gigs for students was “something unique.” Thanks to Hittle, he said, he was performing two to four times a week as a student, while his friends getting music degrees at other universities weren’t performing regularly.

“It’s a really special opportunity to have someone give you gigs when you’re at that level,” said Lord, who has watched Hittle’s impact grow over the years. “For me, it was a huge part of my musical development.

“From then until now, I’ve never worked a non-musical job.”

Hidano said his jazz scholarship at Friends was the only way he could leave Tokyo to come to school in the U.S. and study communications.

Hidano, who works with the Friends admissions department, said he discovered life on the road wasn’t for him after touring Japan and the American Northwest.

But finding regular gigs in the bustling streets of Tokyo was difficult, too. There were so many musicians in Tokyo that many were willing to play for free, and when Hidano did find a gig he would spend the whole day commuting and paying for it, he said.

Hidano arrived in Wichita on a Wednesday and kicked off a tune onstage just two days later, thanks to Hittle, he said. He has barely had a weekend off since then.

“I was kind of blown away,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most well-balanced scenes I’ve ever experienced.

“To this day, it’s one of the main reasons I stayed in Wichita.”

Reach Nassim Benchaabane at 316-268-6514 or nbenchaabane@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter at @NassimBnchabane.

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