Two alumni —
who graduated 45 years apart — prove that jazz and JMU span the
ages. First comes Harry Jeavons (’53), who launched a musical
career in the mid ’50s and brought his catchy alter ego to life.
“Jeavons is a difficult name to spell, pronounce and remember,”
he explains. “As a musician, an identifiable product is vital.
You are the product, and people remember your name.” Nearly five
decades later, Jeavons (a.k.a. Eric Stevens) thrives in his element
as a jazz performer.
from Madison College and completing a tour of service in the U.S. Army,
Stevens turned to music professionally, branching out into vocals and
working in New York for 11 years with such legends as American bandleader
Lester Lanin and jazz master Bill Conti, who composed the Rocky theme.
In 1957, Stevens added the bass to an already impressive list of musical
talents. “And I always wanted to play the piano, so I just started
to play,” he says. Soon after, the Eric Stevens Jazz and Blues
Group took shape.
Nearly half a century
later, a second JMU alumnus and member of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic
Fleet Band joined Stevens’ group. Not long after his graduation,
Scott Helwig (’98) was introduced to Stevens by Navy band mate
already been playing with Eric, and he suggested they use me as their
drummer. I met Eric for the first time at a rehearsal at his house in
Virginia Beach. While I was setting up my drum set, I learned that we
had both attended JMU,” says Helwig.
the first time we played together. I hadn’t even heard many of
the songs we performed, and we didn’t have time to rehearse them.
Eric helped me learn them as we played,” Helwig confesses.
Stevens was impressed
with Helwig’s subtle style. He says, “The No. 1 thing so
many drummers lack is restraint, but Scott has good taste. He’s
the world’s quietest drummer, and we hit it off beautifully.”
six-month stint with the Eric Stevens Jazz and Blues Group, the band
played at Williamsburg’s multi-media festival, “An Occasion
for the Arts.” The annual event showcases nationally acclaimed
Stevens and his
band mates adapt their wide range of performances to best suit the location
and atmosphere of an event. “We’ve done Eric Stevens Swing
Daddies in zoot suits,” Stevens laughs. “And we were quite
honored to play the Chrysler Museum of Art in downtown Norfolk.”
group has created and performed several theme programs including, A
Salute to Sinatra, Broadways’ Greatest Moments, Nat “King”
Cole, Great African-American Entertainers, The Birth of Rock & Roll
and Women of Song.
to be versatile today,” adds Stevens, who doesn’t notice
major differences in technique between generations of jazz musicians.
“Nowadays, just about everyone crosses,” he admits. “I
even try to hide my age — people think I’m 55.”
versatility spans the arts. He has opened for Bill Cosby and performed
with Elliott Gould and Keefe Brasselle. He appeared in several television
commercials and on the soap Another Life. He is author of Be Witty and
has written for Inside Business, Blues News and Tidewater Senior. He’s
also shared his talents by teaching the History of Jazz at Tidewater
Community College and Old Dominion University.
Although the Eric
Stevens Group hasn’t performed in Harrisonburg, Stevens often
makes the trip to his alma mater. On occasion, he even showcases his
musical talents. “I’ve played piano for classmates at a
couple of reunions,” he says. “I go back as often as I can
— I’m one of these reunion fans.”
With his career
constantly on the up-swing, Stevens has delved into a new line of work.
“When the New Year came around, a new career came around. I’ve
just got into song writing,” he says. Again, he reveals a flair
for versatility in composing both sophisticated jazz pieces and simple
country tunes — songs he intends to deliver personally to Nashville.
people like to write the music first, but I like to write the words
first,” he says. “It’s easier to build the music around
the words, there’s more freedom there for me.”
As if his days
weren’t full enough, Stevens also produces local weekly shows
of what he calls “fun songs and Tom Foolery.”
something fun to do,” he laughs, “just a few clean jokes
and happy music.”
carefree optimism has influenced his band members. “I enjoyed
performing with Mr. Stevens,” Helwig says. “He’s a
great person — professional, and a fantastic musician with a lifetime
of experience performing music.”
Helwig is currently
stationed in Chicago at the Great Lakes Training Center with wife Mandy
(’98). The stick-man continues to play for the U.S. Navy Band
and plans to pursue graduate studies in music following his enlistment.
And Eric Stevens’
score is still not completely written. He looks forward to many more
years in his musical career. “You can’t quit being who you
are,” he says.
Story by Ashley Day