Mining for Solid Gold

Tommy Poole highlights his students’ work as the OSU Jazz Orchestra records with noted trombonist Michael Dease.


Tommy Poole readily admits he’s “not expecting to make millions” on the new CD he produced and engineered, even though it’s got a two-time Grammy winner front and center.

He is, however, expecting Solid Gold, featuring trombonist Michael Dease with the Oklahoma State University Jazz Orchestra, to do something important.

“I made the CD because it puts the word out in the world about what OSU Jazz is doing,” says Poole, director of jazz studies and assistant professor of music at Oklahoma State. “I remember when I did the big-band CD back in 2012 with [saxophonist] Seamus Blake, a guy from Russia emailed me, asking for the arrangements I’d done [for the disc]. So it’s international. You do a CD like this, it’s going to pop up on [the internet music-streaming service] Pandora.

Renowned trombonist Michael Dease lent his skills to the Oklahoma State University jazz orchestra. Photo courtesy Tommy Poole

“If enough people have been listening to the record, and it gets enough notoriety, it might end up in a shuffle play or something like that. That’s why you get that Grammy-winning star power of someone like Michael Dease to record. And it’s an incredible experience for the students.”

Dease, who won Grammy awards for his work with singer-songwriter Alicia Keys and the Christian McBride Big Band, is just the latest major jazz act to work with Poole and his students. Since 2009, when he began his career as a college-level jazz educator at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Poole has brought in nationally known artists to work with his students in both concerts and the recording studio. And, like Poole – an accomplished and in-demand saxophonist – most of his guest performers are proficient in both performing jazz and teaching it.

“There are some players I think are really great who aren’t necessarily going to be all that effective communicating with students,” he says. “It’s just not their thing. So not every one who’s a monster player is also going to be passionate about teaching. But I think most great jazz players today also teach. The vast majority of them do, and a lot of them are very passionate about it. Jazz is a complex idiom. No one pops out of their mother’s womb playing great bebop. It has to be worked on. So, for that reason, it’s very natural for a lot of great jazz players to be able to talk about the road they’ve taken – specifically, what they did to get their jazz-playing together.

“The guest artists I have come out to OSU – as was the case with the artists I’d bring out to NSU – they like to teach. I don’t really want a guest artist who doesn’t enjoy talking to students.”

As he’s gotten proficient at booking big-time players for his classes, the 44-year-old Poole has come to recognize one of the red flags that may signal a performer’s lack of interest in teaching.

“Say I hear someone wonderful, and I call up, and maybe I talk to their agent,” he says. “The agent rolls out a ridiculous figure, an unaffordable figure. That leads me to believe that the artists is either so crazy busy on those dates that they’re going to have to take a flight from Guam, you know, just to get here, or they just aren’t into doing the whole thing, so they price themselves so high that it weeds out the market.”

The orchestra and dease perform. Photos courtesy Tommy Poole

That was not the case with Dease, whom Poole first contacted a few years ago.

“It would’ve been back in November of ’14,” he says. “That’s when I was talking to Dease about coming to NSU and having him as the NSU [jazz] festival artist and getting him to record with the NSU Big Band. I loved his trombone-playing, and I loved his compositions. I thought I could do my arranging thing with them. I enjoy arranging and composing, so I wanted to contribute to the arranging and composing sides of the CD.”

In addition to appreciating Dease’s talent as a trombonist and composer, Poole also knew that Dease taught at Michigan State University, which has a top-notch jazz program. So, in Poole’s eyes, Dease was the perfect guest artist. By the time the deal got done, Poole had left NSU for OSU in 2015. Still, they recorded the Solid Gold disc at the NSU Jazz Lab, in a studio Poole knew well.

“I was at NSU for six years, and I built a lot of that studio, replaced a lot of equipment, upgraded a lot of microphones,” he says. “I knew it was going to be cool recording in Tahlequah again because I knew the room, I knew what equipment was there, and I knew how to situate the band so I could get good fidelity.”

The eight-song disc that came out of those sessions feature five Dease compositions, one of Poole’s, a classic jazz tune (“After You’ve Gone”), and “Discussao,” a lesser-known work by noted Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim (of “Girl From Impanema,” “Desafinado” and “Wave” fame). Half were arranged by Poole. In addition to Dease, featured players include saxophonists Matt Floeter, Charlie Chadwell and Sydney Pointer; trombonists Kyle Hunt and Jacob Eyler; trumpeters Tyler Murray and Noah Mennenga; pianist Dylan Shadoan; bassist Mickey Webster; and drummer Matt Durkee.

“I had some great students at NSU, and I’ve got some great students at OSU,” Poole says. “There’s just a lot more students at OSU. And this group records so well. Their tonal qualities are really well-balanced. They’ve got a great ear for pitch. They listen to each other, and they play with impeccable intonation.

“One of our trumpet players, Noah Mennenga, was a sophomore when he played his solo on ‘After You’ve Gone,’ the last track on the CD. He’s a great player, and when he graduates, he’s got a professionally mixed, mastered and tracked CD he recorded with one of the greatest trombone players of all time. And he can say, ‘Oh, by the way, here’s me soloing on this cut.’ It’s a great solo that’s going to get a foot in the door for him down the line.”

One of the names you’ll not see among the performers on Solid Gold is Poole himself. He has a long list of performing credits and appears on several national and regional releases, but he prefers to stay in the background when it comes to his students’ records.

“I’m going to be recording with Count Tutu, a rock group that’s got some jazz elements, in Tulsa,” he says. “You may remember the CD [Jazz on a Summer’s Night] that [vocalist] Pam Van Dyke and [bassist] Bill Crosby did; I was on that one. I just recorded for a CD with a guy out of Kentucky, and I’m looking forward to that one coming out. So there are opportunities for me to highlight my playing on my own CDs, as a sideman or whatever.

“But as a teacher, I prefer to let the students shine as much as possible. If you’ve ever seen a concert I’ve conducted, you know that I like to count off the first tune and then walk offstage. I don’t want it to be about me. I want the audience to witness the power of these students. I just enjoy people coming up afterwards and saying, ‘Man, they sure played well.’ And I’ll say, ‘Didn’t they?’”

He laughs.

“Then I’ll say, ‘Thank you.’ That to me is the reward.”

Solid Gold is available at in both CD and downloadable formats.