Sounds of Wonder: A Tribute to Stevie’s Timeless Hits

June 5, 2024

Article by Brooke Wagner

Photo Courtesy of Billings Symphony

A one…two…three…four…five years ago, a group of jazz musicians came together with the dream of creating a new appreciation for the cultural, musical, and social reach of jazz music in our community. They formed Rocky Mountain Jazz Collective, now composed of some of Montana's most highly respected artists. RMJC is on a mission to bring music to the masses through community outreach and regular performances. A quintessential American art form, jazz is a musical representation of the complexities of life, as melody and rhythm weave together a magical tapestry created, usually on the spot. 

On June 8th, Billings Symphony will feature the Rocky Mountain Jazz Collective in a unique concert tribute to the music of Stevie Wonder. The iconic singer/songwriter truly lives up to his name as one of the most highly acclaimed musicians of the 20th century. Blind nearly all of his life, Wonder is often described as a “child prodigy,” hitting the Billboard Hot 100 song list in 1963 at the tender age of 13. 

As the lights dim and the spotlight focuses on the stage, the ensemble of talented musicians will take their positions. The number of local artists who will be featured to highlight Wonder’s hits is unique to this display of musical ingenuity. From the saxophones to the singers, trumpets to trusted directors, local talent will be showcased as much as the rich harmonies and smooth rhythms. At the helm is Scott Jeppeson, director of RMJC. Currently an Associate Professor of Music at MSU, Jeppeson holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Jazz studies. Always looking to breathe new life into familiar melodies, Jeppeson has crafted nearly a dozen new arrangements of Wonder’s songs specifically for this event. 

The vocalists will also shine a light on Wonder’s lyrics through the lens of Montana’s wide-open skies. Elana Hayden, Clark Stirgus, and Brooke Moncada are Billings residents who bring their own unique backgrounds and interpretations to the jazz scene. Hayden, a seasoned vocalist and songwriter, originally hails from the Big Apple but currently makes her home in Big Sky Country. Singing everything from jingles to demos, she released her debut album, Carry You Home, in 2021 as a soulful dedication to her daughter. Stirgus is originally from Michigan and was raised on the music of Motown. Honing his skills through church and gospel music, Stirgus says he “equates music to art - both serving as the highest forms of self-expression.” Moncada is a self-described “Swiss Army Knife” of a vocalist who is as comfortable in an opera as she is singing funk and soul. A Montana native, Moncada looks forward to sharing the stage with the symphony for her second time. 

Alongside these incredible Montana musicians, two other guest artists will be featured. California’s own Ian Vo will rule the stage on saxophone. A gifted instructor, Vo conducts improvisation workshops for young jazz musicians in the LA area. John Daversa, another California native (now residing in Florida), will enrapture the audience with melodic prowess as he stands at attention, trumpet in hand. An accomplished musician in his own right, Daversa’s repertoire of accomplishments also includes composer, arranger, producer, bandleader, and educator.  

No doubt, by the time the concert reaches its crescendo, the theater will be filled with electrifying energy as the boundaries between audience and performer fade into the night. The jazz concert tribute to Stevie Wonder will echo both his music and his life’s mission—to bring joy, inspiration, and connection to us all. Rocky Mountain Jazz Collective will have succeeded once again in reminding us of the power of music to resonate for generations to come. 


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