My Alma Mater: All that Jazz

It was 1959 and the war was cold, but the music at Illinois was hot

Ron Fink Fink began his professional music career as an Illinois high school student. (Left) Child prodigy “Ronny” Fink playing the drums on WGN-TV. (Image courtesy of Ron Fink)
It was 1959 and the war was cold, but the music at Illinois was hot

In the late 1950s, I was a percussion major at the U of I—paradise for a young musician. Not only was our campus the epicenter of a thriving concert scene, it was also the source of many jazz combos and big bands that played all over central Illinois. One of the most respected bands—for which I played—was the U of I Jazz Band.

The Jazz Band was created by professor John Garvey (aka “John Groovy”), an important figure for the U of I’s music students at that time and a non-jazz player who served as violist for the resident string quartet.

In 1959, Garvey invited pianist John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet to play at the U of I’s Festival of Contemporary Arts and, at around the same time, he formed a big band to play some of Lewis’ arrangements. That was the foundation of the first U of I Jazz Band. 

Under Garvey’s leadership, the Jazz Band gained quite a following—though it was not popular with many of the classically oriented faculty. 

One of the reasons for its popularity was the already vibrant jazz scene on campus. I remember jamming with other players and performing concerts several days a week, and two of my favorite gigs were Wednesday nights in the basement of KAMS and Sunday afternoons at the Capitol Grill on Green Street, as part of Jerry Friend’s Dixieland band.

But my absolute favorite was on Thursday nights, when the Illini Union sponsored its long-running concert series in the basement Tavern called “JAZZ-U-LIKE-IT.” Every week, audiences packed the Tavern for two hours of jazz combos, mostly comprised of students. One year, I served as chairman of the series, overseeing the concerts and booking the acts.

Ron Fink

Fink today, a proud U of I alumnus. (Image courtesy of Ron Fink)

Another unforgettable aspect of the music scene at Illinois was the relationship between young, white college players and mature Black musicians from the Champaign-Urbana community. Black musicians at the Elks Lodge, who played be-bop and modern jazz, took us under their wing and made us better players. Sixty years later, I am still grateful for the musicians’ warm acceptance and friendship, and for teaching me to play great jazz by their example. 

Looking back at my student days, I remember it most of all as a magical time for musicians on campus; a time of rare opportunity that allowed us to go to school and to earn some extra money doing something we loved—making music. —Edited by Ryan A. Ross

Ron Fink is professor emeritus of music at the University of North Texas, where he has served on the faculty since 1964. A former principal percussionist and timpanist with the Fort Worth Symphony, Opera, and Ballet orchestras, Fink began his professional music career as an Illinois high school student, before earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the U of I’s School of Music.

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