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All That Jazz

April 06, 2009

Dr. Tim Bonenfant has encountered some interesting and famous people during his professional career.

On that path, he also found a natural career choice that led him to become an assistant professor of music at ASU. 

“I grew up with music around me,” Bonenfant said.  “I didn’t understand why everybody in the world didn’t play music, because that was just the way I grew up.”

His dad was a drummer for the U.S. Naval Academy Band and his brother also took up the drums.  Bonenfant, who teaches single reeds at ASU, settled on the clarinet.  He developed a good foundation through studies with a couple of Navy musicians, and later, with his high school bands in Virginia and Maryland and at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“I always knew that I was fairly good at playing,” he said.  “When I finally got to the point where there were people better than me, that’s when I had to really start working and not relying on whatever natural talent I may have had.”

At UNLV, Bonenfant worked his way into the university’s jazz ensemble.

“I played with a lot of different folks then, like Joe Williams, the former singer with the Count Basie Band, who lived in Las Vegas and performed with the band a lot,” Bonenfant said.  “I also played with Louie Bellson, who was a great drummer, and Don Menza, who played with a lot of bands, like Buddy Rich’s.”

“I also worked with a marching jazz band at Disneyland one summer while I was still attending UNLV,” Bonenfant said.  “They brought in folks like Bobby Shew and Gary Foster, some really heavyweight studio players, to work with the band a week at a time.”

Bonenfant moved to California in 1985 where he attended the California Institute of the Arts, working on a master’s degree and picking up some more musical experience.

Bonenfant moved back to Las Vegas as assistant to the conductor and as operations manager with the Las Vegas Symphony until it ceased operations due to financial difficulties.  He then began teaching at UNLV, first in jazz history and then rock history while playing with the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

Between playing with the Philharmonic and freelancing with orchestras put together for special events, Bonenfant performed with renowned Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti four times, Pavarotti’s countryman Andrea Bocelli, also a tenor, classical and pop singer Charlotte Church and Spanish tenor Placido Domingo.

At other times, Bonenfant expanded his musical horizons by playing with composer-pianist Marvin Hamlisch, Broadway star Tommy Tune, Peter Schickele (also known as PDQ Bach), the Village People and the Moody Blues.

He even played with one big name by chance.

“Dudley Moore (actor, noted pianist) was playing a fundraiser with the Las Vegas Symphony for the Nevada Ballet Theatre,” Bonenfant said.  “I ended up playing the big clarinet solo at the beginning of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ after my teacher, Felix Viscuglia, started to play and nothing came out of his horn.”

“A pad had fallen out, so he just turned to me and said, ‘here, play.’  So, on the spur of the moment, with no sleep the night before because I had been up all night copying music for another concert, I’m playing this solo,” Bonenfant said.  “Fortunately, it’s one of those solos that I really can play in my sleep.  Felix said, ‘OK, you did the rehearsal, so you should do the concert.’  So, I ended up playing with Dudley Moore.”

Bonenfant also crossed paths with some “names” from the music world after he arrived at ASU.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve played with contemporary Christian singer Sandi Patty and Monica Mancini (composer-conductor Henry Mancini’s daughter),” he said.

ASU came to Bonenfant’s attention as a possible employer while he was still writing his dissertation after his father sent him a list of eight places that had clarinet openings.

“I ended up getting the job I wanted and I’ve been here ever since,” Bonenfant said.  “Every year seems to have gotten better.  My colleagues are great.  It’s very rare when you run into a department where you get along with almost everybody.”