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University of Dayton Faculty Jazztet releases first album, honor late band member

By Ashley Junkunc '21

The release of the University of Dayton Faculty Jazztet’s first album has special meaning for the group’s members. In addition to fulfilling a longtime group goal, it marks the final recorded performances by guitarist and adjunct instructor James Smith, who died in September at age 68.

The Faculty Jazztet performed on campus and at several Dayton-area venues for four years before Jimmy Leach, trumpeter and lecturer, spearheaded the album’s production and release.

“Until you get into the studio and make something beautiful that you can release to people, only the people that have heard you live know you exist,” Leach said. “Having that CD is sort of a snapshot of what the jazz faculty is doing, and it shows the depth of talent, because these guys in the group are so good.”

Leach described Smith as his best friend and someone he’d often go to for advice. Smith, a resident of Bellbrook, Ohio, taught guitar at the University for three years.

“He had a great influence on the musical lives of not just his guitar students but on all musicians who passed through his jazz combos,” Leach said. “I always called him a local legend.”

The Faculty Jazztet was created more than 10 years ago and has performed at local venues such as Carroll High School, The Dayton Art Institute and The Oakwood Memorial Library. They were scheduled to play at Dayton’s Levitt Pavilion, but the performance was postponed because of COVID-19. In addition to Leach and Smith, the group includes four other faculty members: Christian Berg on bass, Phillip Burkhead on piano, Dave McDonnell on saxophone and James Leslie on drums. McDonnell left the University in May 2019 to accept a position at another school.

Released in July, the album includes five original instrumental compositions from group members and the vocal track She Was Too Good For Me by Rodgers and Hart, sung by Leach. Smith contributed two original works, one titled Enchiladas con Huevos, inspired by the cuisine that reminded him of his hometown in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His other contribution, Bright Eyes, was played by the group during Smith’s memorial service.

Leslie, the group’s drummer, has been at the University for 20 years and serves as the percussion artist-in-residence, assistant marching band director and coordinator of the jazz studies program. He describes Bright Eyes as his favorite composition on the album.

“If you would have asked me months ago, I might have given a different answer. But I now think it’s Bright Eyes, which is by the late Jim Smith,” Leslie said. “I think that tune has special meaning for me and the other guys in the group now.”

Leslie initially proposed the idea to record the group’s work in March 2018. The album’s recordings, produced by Gwynne Sound in Cincinnati, were kept on an MP3 file until Leach started the process of converting the album into a tangible hard copy. He collaborated with Misty Thomas-Trout, assistant professor of graphic design, to create graphics for the album’s cover and worked with a sound engineer to finish mixing the sound files. He was overwhelmed with joy after receiving the first box of 50 copies in the mail.

“It felt like the end of that chore, but the beginning of the next in marketing efforts and passing copies out to folks to have them enjoy it,” Leach said.

He has distributed copies to his neighbors in Oakwood, Ohio, members of his church and University faculty, staff and students, hoping prospective music students will hear about it. He described how the CD represents the deep pool of talent that the UD Department of Music has to offer in instruction to students. Leslie also endorses this exemplar of experiential learning.

“With the group of guys on this CD, it’s not just that they're teachers at the University, but they’re all still out performing, which is important, because it brings a lot of weight to your teaching in the classroom if you’re out doing it professionally at the same time,” Leslie said.

Michaela Miller, a senior music therapy major from Salisbury, Maryland, was one of Smith’s guitar students. She began taking lessons from him during her sophomore year and described Smith as an icon in the UD Department of Music.

“He gave me so much confidence in playing the instrument and inspired me to take life easy and move past my mistakes,” Miller said. “Whenever I made a mistake on the guitar, he would tell me, ‘the right answer is only a step away, both in guitar and in life.’ I have carried that sentiment with me through the past few years to help me realize that we are all just a step away from the right path.”

Smith has left a long-lasting impact both on campus and within the community. He also taught at Central State University and University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.

“He touched the life of just about every guitar player in the Cincinnati and Dayton area,” Leslie said. “If you have any sort of interest in jazz guitar, and you’ve lived in the area, you’ve crossed paths with Jim Smith.”

If you are interested in receiving a complimentary copy of the album, contact Leach at

For more information, visit the UD Department of Music website.

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