Two trombonists making a name in jazz

By Sarah Foster

Jim Pugh has a variety of extraordinary experiences to share with his students.

Throughout his half-century-long musicianship, the trombonist and professor of jazz studies has written and directed pieces for symphonies. He’s soloed on soundtracks for feature films, and he’s had his head smashed in a truck door by esteemed jazz musician Woody Herman.

But along the way, Pugh has also discovered that sometimes his students are the ones sharing the exceptional experiences with him. 

For the first time, two University students were selected as finalists for the American Trombone Workshop’s National Solo Jazz Competition. Austin Seybert, a doctorate student in FAA, was selected as a finalist for the 22-to-29 age division and Byron Allen, junior in FAA, was selected for the 21-and-under division in early January. Along with Pugh, the two finalists will travel to Washington D.C. on March 18 for the finals. 

A multitude of applicants spanning the nation submitted CDs of recordings and various pieces to the popular and competitive contest, according to the competition’s website. 

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Out of the two divisions, there are only three finalists allowed to continue. This is the first time that a finalist in each category comes from the University. 

“I’ll be their cheerleader,” Pugh said. “You send the stuff out there, and you have no idea for sure. The honor of being chosen as a finalist is a nice acknowledgement from the trombone world of their abilities and passion, and it’s a great pat on the back. I am very pleased and very happy. We’re all very proud of them.” 

For Allen, the award is a recognition that will continue to drive him to work harder in the future. 

“It keeps you moving, when you do stuff like this,” Allen said. “It’s nice to have something to feel really accomplished for. It gets you to practice more.”

Coming from a small, rural town in Missouri, Allen said it seemed like there was little to no chance in making it in the music world.

“There wasn’t a lot of festivals where I lived. (Other than band), we didn’t have music classes. No one really taught me about it,” Allen said. “My interest in music kind of came from nowhere. My dad’s side of the family is generations of farmers, and my mom’s side of the family has random town jobs.”

But music couldn’t stay away from Allen for too long. After he joined his school’s jazz band in eighth grade, he soon fell in love with it.

“I was really bad (at first). I wasn’t a natural musician,” he said. “It took me a while, but after I joined jazz band, I started feeling really passionate about music. I thought jazz was a fun kind of music. It swung. It was really enjoyable to me. No one around me listened to jazz.”

From then on, Allen explored the genre. He studied professional musicians in the field, observing the way they played and performed, and he listened to every recording he could get his hands on.  

But when Allen came to the University, he found his rural background to be very different from the rest of his peers.

“When I got out here, the music was a lot more complex. I played easier type of solos, like blues — all pretty similar (to jazz), but nothing too complex,” he said. “The players here are a lot different. They had a lot more knowledge of musical theory and the science and math behind music. I learned a lot more by ear, listening to jazz and playing along with it. I (soon) developed my knowledge of music theory, and they do a great job of teaching me how to play.” 

Pugh said Allen’s once-inexperienced background is what helped him stand out among the other applicants. 

“Byron is young and enthusiastic. His heart is on his sleeve when he’s playing. He has an innocence and a purity in his approach to music and the way he plays. I remember seeing that in myself,” Pugh said. “It’s something for all of us to remember. You like to keep in touch with that as much as you can. It’s been really fun to see this talented freshman where things start to fall into place.”

In contrast, Seybert had a different approach to the contest. 

As an older and more experienced musician, Seybert was looking for an excuse to create new recordings.

“I thought I might as well send it out to some competitions,” Seybert said. “When it comes to judging music, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I am grateful that the judges who listened to me felt moved to make me a finalist. … Honestly, I was happy I made the recordings and could share them with others.”

Seybert grew up in a musical home; his father was a trombone player and influenced an 11-year-old Seybert to follow his father’s path and play the trombone.  

“We had a trombone in the house already, so it was a convenient choice. I have been playing trombone for 15 years,” Seybert said with a pause. “Man, I’m getting old …”

Pugh explained that Seybert’s experience and expertise show when he plays, and that it’s what helped him stand out on the recordings he submitted.

“Austin is very thoughtful and smart and a very good composer,” Pugh said. “He has a lot of understanding of music under his belt. It’s interesting teaching him and being much more detailed. Austin showed me a couple fancy scales I hadn’t thought of before.” 

But with a little over a month until the competition, Seybert, Allen and Pugh have realized that this experience isn’t about the award or the achievement: It’s about the opportunity to share their biggest passion with others. 

“Music means a lot to me. It took over my life,” Allen said. “I really want to be a performer. I think about how I felt when I saw older musicians play — it blowing my mind and me feeling so inspired. It made me feel so great. I want to do the same thing to others.” 

For Seybert, while the award is a great honor, it’s the craft of performing that continues to empower him. 

“It’s the artistry, the sharing with others, the story telling,” Seybert said. “All of these qualities are the reason why I do what I do. I am the same person before and after (this award). This competition is nothing more than a small ripple in the pond. I’ve told my wife several times that music is something I will never stop or retire from. I intend to improve myself and share with others for the rest my life.”

To Pugh, that’s the purpose of music. That’s why he composed works for various artists, played solos in multiple orchestral scores and even withstood a painful injury from a truck door. That’s why he continues to share his experiences with his students every day.

“If your plan is just about trying to get that award, that’s a small plan. I don’t think composers write pieces to win a Pulitzer Prize. It’s always in the back of your mind that you’d like to get it because it’s a validation of the path you’re on, but it can’t really be a goal,” Pugh said. “At the end of the day, it’s just a piece of paper.”

Sarah can be reached at [email protected].