Jazz trombone senior continues artistic climb

Drew Kilpela wins national award.

Drew Kilpela says he didn’t know much about playing jazz when he first stepped onto the Michigan State University campus as a freshman in jazz studies. But today, life is different as the MSU senior in the College of Music steps into the spotlight at competitions and performances for jazz trombone.

In early spring, Kilpela garnered first prize in the National Jazz Trombone Solo Competition through the American Trombone Workshop in Arlington, Virginia. The workshop is among the largest annual events for trombone worldwide, and provides a venue for students, performers and educators to network and share ideas. Following his award, Kilpela soloed as a featured guest artist with the United States Army Blues Jazz Ensemble[AK1] , alongside New York Jazz Artist Nick Finzer and Los Angeles Trombonist Alex Iles.

“It’s really kind-of crazy how far I’ve come,” says Kilpela. “I would never have thought four years ago that I could have done anything like compete in a national competition and win.”

Drew Kilpela (second from right) was one of the winners of the American Trombone Workshop's 2018 National Jazz Trombone Solo Competition.
MSU Jazz Studies undergraduate Drew Kipela, at the time the youngest competitor in the field, also won the Trombone Symposium Michael Rath Jazz Solo Competition in 2017.

Associate Professor of Jazz Trombone Michael Dease never doubted Kilpela’s ability and potential. Dease gave Kilpela private lessons when Kilpela was a senior at Okemos High School.

“I was excited to work with him,” says Dease. “His search for excellence inspires everyone around him, including myself.”

Kilpela was motivated to attend MSU and study jazz, despite his limited exposure to the art form as a middle and high school musician. Equipped with natural talent and insights from Dease, Kilpela excelled and constantly pushed himself to reach the next level.

“Drew is a perfectionist, and jazz music’s improvisatory nature and elements of subjectivity have helped expand the boundaries of his creative consciousness,” says Dease. “His response to greater independence in our senior year lessons has shown a marked expanse in his musicality.”

Kilpela says winning the ATW solo competition fuels his momentum. He credits his jazz studies peers and his faculty mentors for inspiring him to work harder, and providing him with the skills to succeed.

“I want to use this achievement to keep striving for things beyond my current skill level and to become the best musician and person I can be,” he says. “I met a lot of really great musicians at the workshop, and it was great to connect with them there. Hopefully, I will meet them again in the future.”

Kilpela’s recent accolades aren't the first time he has caught the ear of jazz educators, professionals and aficionados. In 2017, Kilpela became the second trombone student from the MSU College of Music to win the Trombone Symposium Michael Rath Jazz Solo Competition held annually at Texas State University. Kilpela also served as the split-lead trombonist in the 2017 Disneyland All-American College Band in Anaheim, California, in the summer before his senior year. Kilpela was recently accepted into the graduate program at the University of North Texas. He will attend in the fall and study jazz trombone performance.

“Drew has steadily climbed the ladder of young jazz trombonists around the country,” says Dease. “He has the skillset to take off in whatever direction he pleases, although I am looking forward to hearing his trombone on the radio soloing with a hot new band sometime.”

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