This time of year makes Gaw Vang Williams want to sing. It’s Festival of the Arts at California State University, Sacramento.
“The fact that we get to contribute a whole week to the arts is very special,” said Vang Williams, director of the university’s award-winning vocal jazz ensembles. “Art is a great way to express our feelings. It tells our story to the world. Sometimes, you can’t say how you feel, but you can sing – or paint or sculpt or dance – how you feel. You use art as that tool to express yourself.”
Fresh off another round of honors, Sacramento State’s vocal jazz ensembles will be in concert Friday night as part of Festival of the Arts, or FoTA, as it’s known on campus. Vox Now, for example, won top honors in the college division at last weekend’s Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival and will perform at this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival. The vocal jazz ensembles repeatedly have been named the nation’s best at any college.
This concert offers the young vocalists a chance to share their music with a specific audience – their community. That’s part of the festival’s mission.
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“(The festival) energizes the public to support the arts and to seek the arts,” Vang Williams said in a rehearsal room at Capistrano Hall. “It’s great for what I do, trying to make that connection (between people and the arts). Art is all around us – the design of this building, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear – it’s art. We don’t think about it, but it’s all art around us. People need it, and that’s why they’re pursuing it.”
Vang Williams, 30, has been part of the FoTA experience for more than a decade. Growing up in Sacramento, she earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees at CSUS, then went straight into teaching voice at the university. She’s now the director of four vocal ensembles as well as teaching 15 units.
One of 15 children, Vang Williams was expected to go into medicine, not music. Her Hmong family came to Sacramento as refugees after the Vietnam War.
“It’s very common for Asian families to pursue medical fields,” Vang Williams said. “Music definitely was not something I could pursue. But I had a lot of great public music educators. They saw something in me.”
Vang Williams started with instrumental music, playing violin and baritone horn. By college, she had switched to drums.
“But I just loved singing,” she said. “Singing always was a thing for me, but I didn’t know it was an option” as a major.
Kerry Marsh, Sacramento State’s longtime vocal jazz guru, convinced Vang Williams to pursue voice and teaching as a career. She first became his assistant, then took over the program after Marsh joined the faculty at University of Northern Colorado.
“Under Kerry’s direction, we won more than a dozen Downbeat awards,” she said. “Since I started teaching (in 2014), we’ve won seven more. I’ve been really really blessed.
Kerry, she added, “was a great mentor. He taught me a lot about jazz music.”
Jazz may feel like a way of life, but its vocal styling comes down to simple pronunciation. Classical music tends to play up the vowels, making them long and tall. Jazz is more like talking.
“It’s all in the way you pronounce and shape your vowels,” said Vang Williams, a soprano. “I chose jazz because it’s closer to pop. It’s more conversational in tone. Singing technique is singing technique. The difference is in stylizing and vowel shape.”
Jazz is becoming more accessible, too, she noted. “Jazz is evolving with pop music. For example, Beatle tunes are turning into jazz standards. It makes sense; jazz was pop music for decades.”
For their Friday concert, the vocal jazz ensembles will sing a mix of standards as well as new jazzy arrangements of pop songs such as Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” It will be a wide-ranging mix, showcasing their many styles.
“Our students are really excited,” Vang Williams said of the concert. “Two are performing their own arrangements. They’re sharing what art means to them.”
Festival of the Arts
Where: California State University, Sacramento, 6000 J St., Sacramento
When: Through Sunday, April 9
- Vocal Jazz Ensembles, Capistrano Concert Hall, 7 p.m. Friday: Award-winning groups under the direction of Gaw Vang Williams
- “James and the Giant Peach,” University Theater, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday: Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s classic, featuring large-scale puppets
- Sacramento Dance Sampler, Dancespace, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday: A diverse salute to dance with several Sacramento area companies and performers
- Family Sunday Funday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday: Games, entertainment and family fun throughout campus
Cost: Varies, free-$20
Information: 916-278-4323, www.csus.edu/al/festival