Nationally recognized musicians will return to campus to perform during Alumni Days festivities

MSU President's column for Traill County Tribune

May 10, 2014

Mayville State’s “own” nationally recognized musicians will return to campus to perform during Alumni Days festivities


A long-awaited dream will come true during Alumni Days in June when the former jazz band students of Francis Colby come to the Mayville State campus to perform, and you’re invited to join in the excitement! The musicians will provide entertainment following the Alumni Association Awards Dinner Friday evening, June 20 in MSU Campus Center Luckasen Room. The music will start at approximately 8:00 p.m. You won’t want to miss this opportunity! These musicians were some of the best in the region and nation … and they still are today.

During the heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s, Mayville State’s music program was known as one of the top programs in the upper Midwest. Under the direction of Francis Colby, the concert band and jazz ensemble excelled. Mr. Colby and his family arrived in Mayville in 1963. He assembled instrumental groups of primarily North Dakota and Minnesota kids, and in a short time, they became a strong musical force in North Dakota and throughout the Midwest.

Though the concert band took a back seat to no one, it was the jazz band that brought the national spotlight to Mayville. The group won “Best Jazz Performance by a Big Band - College Division” by the prestigious journal of jazz, down beat, in 1978, winning the Shure Gold Microphone Award. Other competitors included bands from the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, N.Y.; Ohio State University; Northern Illinois University.

The stated purpose of the down beat contest was to “honor the accomplishments of U.S. and Canadian high school and college students in the recording arts and sciences.” The categories and the judging criteria were patterned after the NARAS Grammy Awards. The chairmen judges were voting members of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). Editorial staff members of down beat assisted in the judging and the initial screening of the entries. Recordings were judged “blind,” that is, candidate recordings were known to the judges only by number.

Members of Mayville State’s Student Recording Award-winning jazz ensemble were John Pederson, Fred McMurry, and Roberta Knute on trumpet; Mark Vrem, Tom Loff, Lynn Schroeder, and Dan Finley on trombone; Conrad Miska, Merlin VanBruggen, Kelly Willwand, Diane Strong, and Paul Dickson on saxophone, clarinet, and flute; and Kirk Overmoe, Kris Eylands, Harley Strong, Scott Greenwood, and Mike DeFoe, all in the rhythm section.

George Simon, special consultant for the Grammy Awards, and author of The Big Bands and former editor of Metronome was the chairman judge for the contest. He is quoted as saying “All the college bands I found to be excellent or very good, with one absolutely sensational, namely the Mayville State College Jazz Ensemble. Their playing is utterly charming, tasteful, original-sounding with superb use of dynamics and unusual voicings. The musicianship is superior, and of all their soloists, the fugelhorn player, pianist, guitarist, and drummer impressed me the most. (I made a dub of the Mayville band and am playing it for everyone who walks by my office.)”

In February of 1978, Mayville State was awarded “Outstanding Big Band” recognition during the renowned Elmhurst College’s Mid-West College Jazz Festival in Chicago, Ill. Mayville State joined Ohio State University and Northwestern University as one of the top three bands in the competition, which initially involved 50 schools from eight states.  

In addition, the Mayville State jazz band was runner-up at the sixth annual University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Jazz Festival in 1971. Sixteen college-university jazz groups attended the festival, with ten competing for honors. The six finalists were from De Paul University, Chicago, Ill.; Hamline University, St. Paul, Minn.; Laurence College, Appleton, Wis.; Moorhead State College; University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Mayville State. In the final competition, Laurence of Wisconsin was named ahead of Mayville. The Eau Claire Festival was considered a major jazz festival with well-known jazz educators contributing their talents. In 1971, the principal personality was Charles Suber, editor of down beat magazine.

In the contest, two members of the Mayville State band members received Outstanding Soloist awards, Dennis Connelly, who was a senior saxophonist from Lawton, N.D., and Steve Faison, a drummer from Elk River, Minn. In addition to these two, members of Mayville State’s ensemble were Steve Michels, Larimore, N.D., Mike Schroeder, Northwood, N.D., Dennis Clow, Selz, N.D., and Tom Orvik, Northwood, N.D., on saxophone; Wendel van Wechel, Mayville, Larry Ketterling, LaMoure, N.D., Jim Snustad, Hendrum, Minn, Alan Cooper, Detroit Lakes, Minn., and Tom Moe, Mayville, on trombone; and Jeff Nelson, Northwood, Douglas Barta, Minto, N.D., Curt Stegman, Neche, N.D., Wayne Hola, Hillsboro, N.D., and Kent Dalzell, Walhalla, N.D., on trumpet. The rhythm section included Steve Wymore, Mayville, on piano, and Jeff Jacobson, Bismarck, N.D., on bass.

Do you see any familiar names here? I can’t stress enough the impact these young performers and their leader Fran Colby had. As I said earlier, this is your chance to hear some of the best performers in the nation. There is no admission charge. As we celebrate our 125th anniversary, I hope you’ll join us in celebrating the place these musicians have in Mayville State’s history. You can see all the details of Alumni Days plans at www.mayvillestate.edu/alumnidays. Questions may be directed to alumni.mail@mayvillestate.edu or 701-788-4750.