History of Jazz at WSU

We are proud of the rich jazz tradition that has been in place here at Winona State University since the 1940's. The slideshow at the right highlights pictures from 1943 on. The recorded music in the slideshow features the Winona State College Rhythm Masters from 1959-60, with arrangements by Fred Heyer, as well as contemporary selections from live concerts, recorded as recently as 2010.


Jazz performing groups at WSU date back to the early 1940's when all-girl bands, led by Gladys Anderson-DeLano and Dorothy Wildgrube, began playing for dances. The band, called Bunnie's Band, performed from 1943-1945.
With the end of World War II, and the return of the servicemen from overseas, WSU had an influx of dance-band musicians. In 1946, Jim Cronen led the band.


Beginning in 1947, Fred Heyer became the director of bands and jazz studies at WSU, a position he held for the next 25 years. A master musician on woodwinds and piano, Heyer brought a number of players into the program, and began to build a reputation as a leader and arranger. Mr. Heyer arranged dance tunes for his ensembles through the 1950's and 1960's - over 400 charts in all! Many are still housed in the WSU music archives, and continue to be used for dance presentations today.
As early as 1948, Fred Heyer's Rhythm Masters graced the stage at WSU and the surrounding area as ballroom gigs were plentiful, and "dancing cheek to cheek" was the norm. The Rhythm Masters became the primary outlet for Heyer's arrangements. Some of these arrangements were published through the Hal Leonard Corporation, which was founded in Winona in 1947. There are also a number of record albums from the 1950's and 1960's that were produced under the name of Winona State College Rhythm Masters.


Fred Heyer's untimely death in 1972 left a void in the WSU jazz program that was ultimately filled by Lee Mendyk for 15 years (1977-1992). During the 5 years between Heyer and Mendyk, the band was ably fronted by Gene Anderson (1972-75), Dick Lindner (1975-76), and Richard Sovinec (1976-77).
Once Dr. Mendyk arrived in Winona, the jazz area grew to include two full bands and several combos by the 1980's. Under Mendyk, the bands played popular arrangements of Maynard Ferguson, Chuck Mangione, Buddy Rich, Butch Nordal, Thad Jones, Sammy Nestico and many others. Dr. Mendyk started a high school honor band festival, and the jazz ensemble was the featured group for the high school students who came to campus as guests to perform with their peers. One of the highlights of the jazz program during this time was the 1990 appearance of Clark Terry with the WSU Jazz Ensemble.


In 1992, the band welcomed a new leader, as WSU welcomed their new clarinet and saxophone instructor, Dr. James Hoch. Hoch fronted the jazz ensemble from 1992 to 1996. During this time, the band made several touring appearances, including the Kansas Jazz Festival.
The most recent change of directors came in 1996, when percussionist, Dr. Rich MacDonald joined the WSU faculty. MacDonald has been at the helm since then. Currently, the jazz program features one big band and four combos, including the Dixie Midnight Runners - an 8-piece traditional jazz group. The program continues to grow, now featuring a jazz minor option for all students, and the addition of several jazz faculty. Find out more here.

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