Academics and Research

Vocal jazz instructor hitting high notes with dual CD release

“Even the worst day of teaching is something I still love," says Donna Wickham, seated at the piano. "I’m continually thinking how deliriously happy I am when I’m teaching.” Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Donna Wickham’s musical career is hitting some high notes. Last fall she released two CDs in one month, and both are getting rave reviews.

Wickham (BM ’00, MM ’03), a DU alumna who heads up the vocal jazz program at the Lamont School of Music, celebrated the release of a CD by her classical vocal quartet, Firesign, on Oct. 7. She followed that with Myth and Memory, a jazz album featuring her own compositions, on Oct. 30.

Denver classical radio station KVOD called the Firesign release one of the best albums of 2011. And Ellen Johnson, a reviewer for Jazz History Online, describes Myth and Memory as “a mystical debut that will take your senses for a spin while tossing your emotions in multiple directions.”

Wickham describes the Firesign CD as a mix of Renaissance and modern styles: “It’s choral, but it’s unusual because it was done by a quartet, with an intimate feel.”

She calls Myth and Memory a “type of fusion between many different musical and literary influences, including jazz, classical and folk. It has some concepts and ideas you don’t usually see in jazz albums.”

She wrote one song set to work by Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose compositions often testified to the contradictions and outrages of life under Soviet premier Josef Stalin.

“Her work gave me a strong response,” Wickham says. “I felt a kind of kinship with her.”

Wickham describes the overarching theme of the CD as complex.

“It’s about the search for beauty and about surviving the ugliness, and that’s beautiful. I think every Russian, and any human who’s lived an interesting life, can identify with that — the simple act of surviving is beautiful. There’s a great, beautiful sense of gratitude having survived.”

Despite the praise for her work and the joy Wickham says she gets from making music, she says teaching also is intensely satisfying.

“Anyone who knows me knows I adore my students — we have a blast together. I’m absolutely nuts about teaching,” says Wickham, who coaches three vocal jazz combos and helps with advising for jazz students in addition to teaching private jazz voice lessons. “Even the worst day of teaching is something I still love. I’m continually thinking how deliriously happy I am when I’m teaching.”

Wickham grew up in Fort Morgan, Colo., and was born into a musical family. Her dad, who attended DU before enlisting in the U.S. Navy with his two brothers to fight in World War II, was a professional musician who formed a dance band in the early 1930s.

“I remember music always being a part of everyday life. As soon as I could crawl up on the piano bench, I did, and I fell in love with the piano,” she says. “I remember listening to Tchaikovsky, dancing and twirling around the living room.”

Her parents learned she had perfect pitch as a child. “I’d be humming a tune, and I’d go to the piano to accompany myself in the perfect key.”

Wickham shares her Denver home with Gizmo, a little black cat. “She’s head of my record company, Gizmo Records,” the singer says. “She’s part of the empire. If I’m making music or teaching lessons, she’s on the piano bench and commenting on the activities, meowing and purring. And if we start to make music that’s not good, she leaves the room.”

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