Before the Wisconsin Historical Society Press agreed to publish my book Wisconsin Riffs, they told me that I was going to have to cut a great deal of material from the original manuscript. I mean a lot. All the cuts I made were painful, none more painful than the chapter I had written in which I profiled six outstanding public school jazz educators. Before Wisconsin Riffs even came out I was thinking about how I could get that material, and other things I had written about jazz education in the state, out to a wider audience. The first two places I “shopped” this material displayed enough reservation about the idea that I gave up — for the time being. Then I got involved in my next big writing project and went in a different direction.
However, seeing a notice last week in the newsletter of the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium about Steve Sveum’s retirement, and being aware that my last two posts on this site had created some reader interest, I decided that this would be the place to get part of this material out — at least for now. While I’ve already made plans to post some more profiles from Wisconsin Riffs here, I also plan to eventually post the other unpublished profiles of the great educators that I wrote about.
But the time was right to publish this profile (just slightly updated) of Steve. It was my pleasure to work with him in the Wisconsin chapter of the International Association for Jazz Education, as well as to be a clinician at his outstanding jazz festival at Sun Prairie High School on a number of occasions. Here’s to you, Steve.
Steve Sveum was born in 1961, in St. Louis, Missouri, his mother’s hometown.[i] A few years later, the family moved to little Dane, Wisconsin (population less than 1000), near his father’s family’s historical home. Dane was a little bit of a shock for second-grader Steve, used to going to St. Louis Cardinals games, the St. Louis Zoo, and seeing the Gateway Arch being built. (His father was a surveyor, and was involved in the Arch project.) For fans of television of that period, Steve says that the lifestyle change his mother experienced was something akin to that seen on Green Acres.
Only a couple of years later, though, the family moved to the northeast side of Madison. Steve started on saxophone in band in school, and he also took the city bus downtown for lessons from longtime saxophone teacher Benny Ehr at the old Ward-Brodt music store on N. Henry Street. Sveum claims to have been “the best alto saxophone player” at Gompers Middle School; he was also the only alto saxophone player there. Right before he entered high school, the family moved again, to Sun Prairie. Expecting to play alto in the high school band, he was put on baritone saxophone – before anyone even heard him play. Ray Hawkinson was his band director, and Don Lehrman, then Steve Miller (later supervisor of music in the Racine School District) ran the jazz band. Sveum was soon attending whatever jazz concerts he could, often hosted by Dave Heilman, band director at Verona High School, and Jeff Peronto, who was known far beyond Madison for bringing jazz groups to Madison Area Technical College.
Early on Steve showed the kind of organizational abilities that have served him throughout his career. He was the student that organized the other students to make these jazz ventures. The school jazz group was active, attending festivals hosted by the state’s UW campuses. In 1978, Bernie Powers took over the program at Sun Prairie, and for the next two years, until his 1980 graduation, Sveum was a student leader in the program, always interested in how the whole “system” worked.
As graduation approached, Steve had to make “the college decision.” By this time, he says, “I spent all my time with music. But I wanted to make money, and I wanted to travel.” Knowing even at that age that making money and music usually don’t go together, Steve opted to attend UW-Eau Claire because of its business program. Since UWEC had a strong jazz program, he figured that he could take advantage of that while working on his business degree. He joined up with the jazz crowd at Eau Claire right away. In the meantime, things weren’t going so well in the business area. When his grade in an economics class bottomed out, the professor pulled him aside.
. . . and he said, “What’s up? Why are you getting a D?” He said, “What are you doing with your time, partying?” I said, “No.” “Well why aren’t you taking care of this business?” I said, “Well I’m spending a lot of time in the practice room.” He said, “Well, you need to get this grade up, regardless. And if that’s where you’re spending all your time, maybe that should tell you something.”
So despite apprehension on the part of his family, Steve entered the music program. Eau Claire turned out to be the “perfect” place for him. Hank Mautner was leading the jazz program. Although Mautner’s time at UWEC is not as celebrated as the tenures of either Dominic Spera, in the program’s developing years, or Bob Baca, in its long period of excellence, it was still a very good time for the program. Percussionist/drummer Ron Keezer, who was a major figure during all three of the periods mentioned, was a stable influence. And Sveum was in school with other fine saxophonists – Doug Rasmussen, Jeff Reitz and Greg Keel. (Sveum, Reitz and Keel continued to play together for years in various bands.)
Graduating from Eau Claire in 1985, Sveum took his first teaching job – back in Sun Prairie. When first hired, he says, “I taught at an elementary school, middle school and did lessons at the high school.”
[Wh]en I interviewed they talked about what my job would be and everything, but they didn’t mention jazz at all. And so I said, you know, “Well, could I do it? Anybody working with the jazz band?” He said, “We don’t have that here.” I said, “Well, I kinda know you do, but . . .” (laughs) He said, “Well you could do it, but you won’t be paid.” So I said, “Okay.” So we started it there, but that first year was a really good year.
Saying the year was good is something of an understatement. At the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, the Sun Prairie group won the AA division. The band also won at the UW-La Crosse Festival, and UW-Green Bay as well! That great success was a harbinger of things to come in the program.
The festival successes did not happen in a vacuum. Eventually, Sveum got all of the band directors in the district to do some jazz. The list of clinicians and guest artists that he has brought in to the schools is mind-boggling (a shortened list follows below). He started locally, bringing in faculty from various UW schools who were happy to offer their services at a school that might provide them with good college players. This included Steve Zenz (UW-Stevens Point and La Crosse), Tim Bell (Parkside), who taught saxophone lessons at Sun Prairie for a number of years, and Steve Wiest (Whitewater), who was helpful in getting Sun Prairie’s Jazz on the Prairie Jazz Festival going in its early years.
Steve worked hard at trying to raise the visibility of the program in its home community. He finally got the local paper to come to the school to report on a clinic. The clinician then went on to tell the students (as the reporter furiously scribbled notes) about how he got his musical start playing in a strip club.[ii]
Sveum was going to attend graduate school at Indiana University, but when a family health crisis intervened, he decided to stay close to home, earning the degree at UW-Madison instead. He studied there with saxophonist Les Thimmig, and with Wind Ensemble (and later Orchestra) conductor James Smith. Instead of writing the large paper usually required for a master’s in music education at Madison, Steve instead did a saxophone and conducting recital.
When he returned to the Sun Prairie school system after his year leave for the master’s, Steve became full-time at the high school; he was back working with his old director Bernie Powers.
The year before Sun Prairie’s first jazz festival, with help from a touring fund sponsored by the Lila Wallace Foundation, Steve brought a great trio to the school, including two esteemed veteran jazz artists, pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Ed Thigpen. The revered Thigpen, who was a part of one of the great trios of jazz history, Oscar Peterson’s trio, was to return to Sun Prairie, from his home in Copenhagen, Denmark, a number of times subsequently. Steve can tell fabulous stories about Thigpen’s visits, as well as that of Tony Williams, one of the most important drummers in jazz history, who appeared at the high school when his appearance, sponsored by his cymbal company, proved to be too big for Rand Moore’s Drums n’ Moore store in Monona. After his visit, Williams gave the school a drum set and several sets of cymbals. Sveum has another excellent story about the visit of trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who was in the area for an appearance with the Madison Symphony, and came to Sun Prairie as part of his contracted “outreach.”
Those three different ways of getting a major artist to the school are an indication of Sveum’s resourcefulness. He has submitted many successful grant proposals of varying types in order to expose his students to great artists and teachers. Besides much of the jazz faculty from the colleges and universities across the state, just a small sampling of the list of guests includes Terrell Stafford, Clark Terry, James Williams, Matt Wilson, Wycliffe Gordon, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Conrad Herwig, Brian Lynch, as well as “locals” Richard Davis and Ben Sidran.
As if doing exceedingly well in state festivals wasn’t enough, when Jazz at Lincoln Center started its Essentially Ellington contests in 1996, Steve dove right in with his Sun Prairie group. In an amazing showing, the band has made the national finals thirteen times (as of 2020), earning trips to New York for the final rounds of competition. It has placed third nationally in the contest three times, competing against schools from all over the country, including special arts academies from the nation’s largest urban centers. Through the Ellington contest, Sveum has made other connections. He attended several of the J@LC Jazz Academy “learning sessions,” and after his band kept showing up at the finals, he was invited to join the faculty at the Academy. He has taught Academy sessions at various places around the country since 2008, as well as serving as a clinician for Essentially Ellington festivals nationally.
Both the jazz ensemble and the wind ensemble have performed at many state and regional conventions.
Closer to home, Sveum has served on the faculty at Door County’s renowned Birch Creek Music Center jazz camps since 1990, and has done work at many high schools throughout the state. Steve has been presented with many awards, the most prestigious of which is probably the Jazz Education Achievement Award from Down Beat magazine, in 2014.
What is the highlight of all of this experience and success? Steve says, “[M]aybe everybody feels this way, but I learn so much from everybody. I mean that’s the one thing that I’ve found out, is that everybody’s so giving of information, and there’s so many people that do it so many different ways, but do it really well.” Hardly anyone has done it better in Wisconsin than Steve Sveum. Notably, Steve remained in the school district in which he first started teaching for his whole career.
[i] Most of the information about Sveum comes from our conversation of July 17, 2014. Steve also supplied me with a helpful handout with many of the “facts” about his career and the Sun Prairie program.
[ii] To get the real flavor of this and other great stories from the Sun Prairie history, one really needs to hear Steve Sveum tell them in his own words and with his own style of expression.