Steve Zegree, an internationally respected vocal jazz educator who was also an accomplished pianist and choral conductor, died March 7 in Bloomington, Indiana. He was 61 and had been suffering from pancreatic cancer.
Since August 2012, Zegree had served as the Pam and Jack Burks Professor of Music at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where he directed the Singing Hoosiers and Vocal Jazz Ensemble I. Prior to that, he was a longtime faculty member at Western Michigan University, where he began his teaching career in 1978 and later was named the Bobby McFerrin Distinguished Professor of Music.
While at WMU, Zegree founded the acclaimed collegiate vocal ensemble Gold Company, which performed at festivals and conferences around the world and won close to 50 DownBeat Student Music Awards under his direction. He also toured and recorded regularly as a pianist with the Western Jazz Quartet, a faculty group.
Known as a dedicated mentor to generations of vocal jazz students, Zegree was held in high regard by his peers in the educational community. “It is with deep sadness but incredible gratitude that we say goodbye to our director, our friend, our motivator, our inspiration and our visionary voice, Dr. Stephen Zegree,” said Ly Wilder, a member of the vocal jazz faculty at the Jacobs School, in a statement issued by Indiana University. “As a student and a colleague, I have been blessed to know the generosity and the artistry of this man. He has invested his life in the musical growth and professional development of so many young musicians, and he leaves a legacy of beautiful music in his wake.”
Zegree, who was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Education Hall of Fame in 2012, placed high expectations on his students, drawing from his own extensive experience as a professional performing musician. Although frequently described as “demanding,” he was known as a compassionate teacher with boundless energy and a disarming sense of humor. His success has been attributed to his tireless personality and an underlying commitment to excellence. “I work hard; I put in a lot of hours, and I have a lot of energy,” he said in the June 2012 issue of DownBeat. “If I average four or five hours [of sleep] a night, I’m feeling pretty good.”
Born on May 5, 1953, in Vancouver, Washington, Zegree started playing piano at age 3. He received a bachelor’s degree in piano performance from Miami University in 1975 and a master’s degree in piano performance from Indiana University in 1978. He would go on to receive a doctorate in choral conducting from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1989.
Zegree discovered his passion for teaching after beginning his career as a performer. When WMU hired him in 1978, he was charged with teaching piano and molding an existing ensemble called the Varsity Vagabonds into a respectable vocal jazz group. “Being a college professor wasn’t something that I had aspired to or was part of my life script,” he told DownBeat. “The opportunity came up and initially I thought, ‘I’ll try this out for a year.’”
His presence at WMU helped to boost the school’s international cachet as a place to study jazz. He started an annual vocal jazz festival at the school and founded the Steve Zegree Vocal Jazz Camp for high school and college students and teachers during his stint there.
A Steinway Artist, Zegree maintained an active schedule as a performer, clinician and choral conductor throughout his teaching career. He played piano with symphony orchestras, gave solo concerts and toured as a keyboardist with national Broadway shows.
Additionally, he was the arranger and rehearsal director for actor-singer-producer Nick Lachey’s winning choir on NBC’s telecast of Clash of the Choirs, and he conducted the World Youth Choir during the 2008 Olympics in China.
Zegree recorded four CDs as pianist with the Western Jazz Quartet, and one as a leader, Steve Zegree & Friends (Sea Breeze, 2009). He also produced several recordings, including the Grammy-nominated Mark Murphy Sings Nat’s Choice: The Complete Nat “King” Cole Songbook, Volumes 1 & 2 (Muse, 1994).
Along with teaching, performing and recording, Zegree was a published author and in-demand musical arranger. He wrote two definitive books on jazz singing and performance: The Complete Guide to Teaching Vocal Jazz (Heritage Music Press/Lorenz Music Publishing) and The Wow Factor: How To Create It, Inspire It & Achieve It (Hal Leonard). More than 100 of his arrangements have been published and are in use by choral groups around the world.
Zegree served on the selection committee for the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival from 1992 to 1998. He was appointed national co-chair of the International Association for Jazz Education Vocal Jazz Committee from 1990 to 1994, and he had affiliations with numerous professional organizations, including the American Choral Directors Association, College Music Society, International Federation for Choral Music and Jazz Education Network.
A statement released by Zegree’s family described his legacy as “the thousands of singers and musicians, both professional and amateur, who had the opportunity to study, learn and perform with this most extraordinary man of such exceptional talent and warmth.”
Zegree is survived by his wife, Laurie Hofmann; his children, Sarah and Nat; and his sister, Joan Zegree.