by Rob Hanson, Leader Telegram Staff
UW-Eau Claire senior Mike Malone couldn't help but admit he was a little nervous as he prepared last week to jump behind the drum kit for the world-renowned Glenn Miller Orchestra.
The 22-year-old's first gig on the nearly 300-date tour that will take him to three countries over the next year with the group was Saturday, and he still hadn't actually rehearsed with the band.
But those who know Malone's raw talent and unbreakable cool, say that is precisely why he got the gig.
"I'm very proud of Mike for his tremendous talent achieved by good old fashioned hard work, his entrepreneurship in creating more music opportunities for our town, but most of all, for his nature as a wonderful human being," UW-Eau Claire director of jazz studies Robert Baca wrote in an email. "He will need all of these characteristics to flourish in close quarters with other musicians, performing a different concert each night of the year."
The opportunity to join the Glenn Miller Orchestra came in mid-April, when Baca passed along a notice of some openings in the band and encouraged Malone to try out. Malone put together some clips of himself performing with the UW-Eau Claire Jazz I band and sent them off with high hopes.
Having a music educator like Baca - who over the course of his career has brushed elbows with the who's who of the jazz world - probably didn't hurt his cause. However, Malone's road to success started much earlier in his musical career when he made a commitment to jazz drumming.
An Oshkosh native, Malone started playing music around the time he entered the sixth grade. But it took a while for him to find his niche.
"I actually started in school playing saxaphone, but I wasn't very good so they switched me to drums," he said. "I got really into playing drum set and had some really good teachers growing up, and I got into jazz bands in middle and high school."
By the time he reached high school, Malone knew he didn't want to do anything other than music. And with UW-Eau Claire's growing reputation for having the premier jazz program in the Midwest and possibly the country - not to mention its location just a few hours from Oshkosh - it was an easy choice for Malone.
Little did he know, though, just how far being a jazz student at UW-Eau Claire would get him.
Malone credits a supportive music Eau Claire music community and the opportunities of a smaller university for his continued development as a drummer.
"It's nice to be in a small town, or small compared to something like Minneapolis. And community especially is a big part of that," he said. "Since (the UW-EC jazz program is) only undergrad, all of us who are 19 or 20 years old are afforded the same opportunities that usually go to graduate students at bigger schools.
"So there's a lot of opportunities to play and get better and learn from other musicians and directors."
Malone said he has been a longtime fan of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and has performed the group's music many times in school jazz concerts.
And while he still has a semester left at the university - he hopes to finish up with online coursework - the opportunity to tour for a living with a world-famous band was just too good to pass up. Over the next year, the gig will take Malone across the U.S., Canada and Japan.
"I'm super eager to do it. As far as touring big bands go, they are one of the only ones that are left doing that full-time," Malone said. "They're definitely one of the most famous big bands out there. I'm honored to be able to do it."
Baca agreed, calling Malone's appointment a major stepping stone in his career as a jazz drummer. The Glenn Miller Orchestra was founded in 1938, and has toured the world in various incarnations ever since.
"Being a member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra will also be a game changer in Mike's career, providing him with a substantial credential for other large performance opportunities with major artists," Baca said. "Because all commercial music is tied to jazz in some way and Mike has become an accomplished jazz drummer, the credential of being the drummer for the Glenn Miller Orchestra will open endless opportunities.
"Go get the job done Mike."