ASU professor keeps jazz alive with new album

"East of the Sun" preserves the heritage of jazz music for students and casual listeners

With the recent release of his second solo piano album "East of the Sun," professor of music and director of jazz studies at the ASU School of Music Michael Kocour has set out to preserve the tradition of jazz music just as he seeks to instill that same tradition in his students.

The new album of covers, available for purchase through Origin Records and streaming on most major platforms, allows Kocour to do this through its adherence to classic songs from titans of piano jazz.

Kocour said he began his musical journey in high school in Chicago, when a local tenor saxophonist named Joe Daley exposed him to the music of legendary jazz pianists like Art Tatum and Hank Jones.

"Joe always talked to me about being a complete piano player,” said Kocour. “He said, ‘At some point, if you want to be taken seriously, you’ll need to learn how to present solo piano.’”

Kocour said one of his first experiences performing solo jazz piano was a gig he had at The Gold Star Sardine Bar in Chicago, where he said he often played unaccompanied for as many as five hours a night.

“They made me play American songbook standards,” Kocour said, referencing the informal collection of famous twentieth-century popular songs colloquially referred to as “The Great American Songbook.” 

He said the combination of trial-by-fire performances and the material he was playing forced him to become serious about the music.

Kocour said he later went on to perform regularly with famous jazz musician and NEA jazz master Benny Golson, a mentor he said he still calls whenever he has a question on musical arrangements or composition.  

That kind of exposure to the heritage of jazz music is something his students say he brings to his program, as well as his playing.

“I really appreciate the seriousness that Mike has for the tradition,” said Ben Stowers, a junior jazz performance major at The New School in New York City who transferred from ASU. “It’s such a clear lineage as to what’s gone into his playing.”

Stowers said his career goals were his reason for leaving ASU and that since transferring he’s seen firsthand how jazz professors at schools in New York City are less available to their students than Kocour and his faculty are at ASU. 

“These (teachers) have to be on the road all the time, so it’s just not possible for them to be present like Mike is," Stowers said. 

Matt Williams, a 2017 alumnus from the ASU jazz studies program and freelance jazz pianist, said Kocour was “a phenomenal teacher.”

“He invested a lot in me, and he stuck with me through my mistakes," Williams said.

Williams said he thought Kocour had “outdone himself” with his latest album and said his piano playing on the new album show his development in comparison to Kocour’s past releases. 

Faculty that have taught alongside Kocour, such as senior lecturer in the ASU jazz studies program Dom Moio, have also noted his emphasis on both mentorship and the history of jazz music.

“He’s mentored so many of the students,” said Moio. “He’s probably the most committed teacher I’ve ever met.” 

Moio, who has been an ASU school of music faculty member since 1990, said that since Kocour started at ASU in 2004, he has contributed to the musical growth of the jazz studies program.  

Since then, Moio’s played on three of Kocour’s recordings and toured with him in China and South America.

“He’s an amazing musician, composer and administrator,” Moio said.

Kocour said he feels the need to counter perceptions that jazz is not relevant to contemporary culture, pointing out the influence of the genre in the development of R&B, blues and hip hop.

"I feel like I'm here to keep ignorance in check," he said.


Reach the reporter at Christopher.Clements@asu.edu or follow @ChristopherJCI8.

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