One of the most interesting recent developments in the music scene in Oshkosh has been the formation and rapidly growing success of The Water City Jazz Orchestra.
The group was formed earlier this year by trumpeter Kurt Shipe and drummer Mike Malone. In addition to playing together in high school, Shipe and Malone attended the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire where together they performed in the GRAMMY-nominated Jazz Ensemble I.
After both relocated back to Oshkosh, the two made plans to form a youthful addition to the big band music scene in the Fox Valley.
“We played together in high school and college, so it just made sense that we would put a band together,” Malone said.
The two have complementary skills that create a unique synergy. Malone is one of the best drummers in the area – “Mike keeps great time,” Janet Planet has said on many occasions – and provides a very solid foundation and leads an excellent rhythm section.
Shipe brings multiple talents to the effort.
“As a musician, Kurt is an amazing and versatile player,” Malone said. “He is an outstanding soloist and lead player and yet he is also humble enough to know when to stay in the background. His selflessness is a great asset to the band. As a personality, he is very natural and really good at communicating with the audience and keeps a fun vibe going which is another great strength for the band.”
“Kurt has a love of big band jazz,” said drummer Michael Underwood, who has guested with the WCJO and is also Shipe’s cousin. “He brings that same enthusiasm to The Water City Jazz Orchestra.”
Shipe and Malone assembled an ensemble featuring some of the most talented jazz musicians in the area – many of whom are accomplished in other genres as well – to form the nucleus of the band. The resulting quality and professionalism of the players and the playing enables them to attract stellar special guests. The band currently has a regular gig the last Monday of each month at Manila Resto in Oshkosh.
“When the orchestra was looking for a place to perform, Marlo Cuaresma Ambas, owner of Manila Resto, jumped at the idea of a big band play in the Resto,” Shipe said. “His generosity and patience have paid off for both the WCJO and Manila. Working together has created an atmosphere that provides a packed house, great food, and great music.”
Shipe has also performed and recorded with Nachito Herrera and the Cuban All-Stars, the Stan Kenton 100th Birthday CD, Alan Baylock, and the Geoff Keezer Big Band CD as well as Bob Mintzer and the YellowJackets. His private trumpet instructors include Dr. Randall Sorensen, Dr. Marty Robinson, and Mr. Robert Baca.
While these accomplishments are enough to merit attention, there is much more to the Shipe story.
“When I was seventeen years old, I chose to join the Army to help with the cost of college, not knowing what potential the service had for my career,” he said. “I knew there was an Army band and I had always been very much involved with music as a young adult. As my path for life was undetermined, the Army had always been there as a backup. When I turned twenty, the position of director for the Army jazz ensemble opened up and I jumped at the opportunity. After running a few rehearsals, I was given the position of musical director. Over the years the reputation for the big band had grown and we started headlining jazz festivals, teaching school clinics and performing in the public eye. I recruited players that I wanted to play in the band so it could grow into an exciting ensemble.”
Shipe continues as the Director of the Wisconsin Army National Guard Patriot Jazz Orchestra.
Among other accomplishments, the band headlined the Woody Herman Jazz Festival alongside Alan Vizutti in 2013.
His service to his country and his state extends even further. Shipe is a member U.S. Army National Guard Honor Guard.
“The primary mission is to provide military funeral honors to our fallen comrades, veterans, retirees and current soldiers,” Shipe explained. “In order to complete this mission, the Honor Guard trains for, rehearses, and executes funeral details in accordance with applicable law and regulation. Our soldiers and airmen strive to exceed standards set forth by these regulations and provide the best possible service to honor the deceased, and provide a lasting experience for the family in their time of grief.”
While his service has been recognized, his mere presence is his most important contribution.
“He handled the honors at our grandfather’s funeral,” Underwood said. “He was a rock – didn’t crack. He presented the flag to the family and it was obviously very special. It provided an extra measure of closure, and the funeral was very meaningful as a result.”
As a SCENE reader, your mission is to get out to Manila Resto, have some good food and hear a great band. While you’re there, thank Shipe for his service.