Bobby Selvaggio: An advocate for aspiring jazz artists


Bobby Selvaggio directs student jazz artists in a concert on April 9, 2019. 

Phillip Grant

Listen to “Mentor, Musician, Inspiration: Bobby Selvaggio” on Spreaker.

Kent State Jazz studies director Bobby Selvaggio is a strong advocate of the genre who helped create a platform for young, aspiring musicians.

Three decades in counting. That’s how long saxophonist Selvaggio has been playing professionally. He has earned the respect from highly-touted musicians and walked down the same streets as famous jazz musician Duke Ellington. But after four years of gigging in New York City, the Cleveland-native understood the great impact he could make if he returned home. And that’s exactly what he did with the support of his wife.

“We’ve always had plans on moving back to Northeast Ohio,” Selvaggio said. “So when we did, it gave me the opportunity to help build this Northeast Ohio jazz scene.”

Now, Selvaggio is in his sixth year as jazz director and teaches a jazz composition and arranging course.

“And for that class they learn everything from song-writing to learning how to create tunes, melodies,” Selvaggio said. “And then by the end of the class, their main project is whatever song they compose. They arrange it for a big band.”

Junior music education major Eric Vasquez sees the impact the jazz studies program has made on his music career. Throughout the conversation, there were characteristics that he and Selvaggio shared. The two both have approachable personalities that compliments their unique appearances. Selvaggio has this tattoo of Spiderman on his forearm resembling him being a hero to these kids because of all he has accomplished and the opportunities he has blessed them with. Vasquez has a beach boy appearance with his long, wavy blond hair, ocean-blue eyes and stubbled beard.

“Being involved in the jazz bands and combos helps because you can participate, learn the stylistic differences, learn what they are,” Vasquez said. “And you also have Bobby Selvaggio and the other combo instructors helping out so you can get the terminology down.”

And with the natural talents that these college students possess, Selvaggio had a vision.

“We’re getting to the point where we have enough students that are writing new music; that I was thinking to myself, ‘Man! It would be great to do a student composers concert and allow them a chance to perform their music.’”

Soon after that, Selvaggio’s vision became a reality and the concert became set-in-stone.

A day before the concert, the students gathered into Room E112 of the Center for Performing Arts Building. The atmosphere in the room matched the young composers’ demeanors: fun, relaxed and care-free.

“When they first finished their charts and we read them for the first time, it was really cool to see their reactions because composing is a very personal and intimate thing,” Selvaggio said.

As students played through each piece, they tapped their feet to the beat, and there was a clear look of satisfaction on their faces as they executed each note to perfection.

“He was able to be a really good conductor and great teacher and not only help bring my piece alive but the other students,” Selvaggio said.

“We’re just excited to put on a show of our own music.”

And not only is Vasquez and the rest of the composers excited about the concert, but Selvaggio cannot wait for people around the area to see just how talented these young musicians are.

“When we finally perform all this stuff, in front of people, these will all be premieres,” Selvaggio said. “None of this music has been performed live for anybody before. I’m really excited to see the reactions by the band, the audience and all that.”

Tuesday evening, April 9 in Ludwig Recital Hall, would be a signature moment for all these musicians who have waited all their lives for an opportunity like this.

“I mean this idea of creating something from nothing… and you did it! That’s pretty heavy, I mean that’s a big thing!” Selvaggio said.

“I feel in music you’re not just learning notes off a page,” Vasquez said. “You can learn a story behind a piece and learn different influences and learn world history behind certain pieces.”

“Letting the students understand that we all are students, but we’re all professional musicians,” Selvaggio said. “And if this is who you need to be, go ahead and be it; and let’s experience this together and see what happens. To me, that’s what learning is all about.”

Music is a form of expression that many of us cannot live without. And these composers will continue to use their talents to change the world one music note at a time.

Phillip Grant is a Kent State journalism student. Contact him at [email protected].