Jazz pianist Doug Bickel never planned on a career in music — much less returning to his Alma mater, the legendary Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, to direct the jazz piano department where he once studied.
“My father Ron is actually a jazz musician,” the Pittsburgh-born pianist tells me from his teaching studio in Miami, “but I had kind of decided against a career in music. My first inspiration back in that direction was playing in the Florida All- State Band, with [renowned multi-instrumentalist] Ira Sullivan as our guest conductor. Ira just has a real special gift for nurturing young talent. He was the one who really showed me by the way he lived, and by his exuberance for what he was doing, that this was something that not only I could do and do well, but that I could be happy doing.”
Bickel would eventually enroll at the University of Miami, but not immediately in the famed music school where graduates like Bruce Hornsby and Gabe Dixon honed their craft.
“Strangely enough, I was recruited as a math major,” Bickel continues. “But as soon as I heard some of the ensembles in the music school, I said to myself, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’ It was my first year here that really inspired me to get in the shed and get it together.” At UM, Bickel would eventually be tapped to anchor the school’s premier ensemble, the Concert Jazz Band.
“It took me until my junior year to get into that band, and I credit that to the faith shown in me by [UM jazz chief] Whit Sidener, who has a rare gift in knowing in people, sometimes even before they know, the goodness that they have inside of them. He and jazz composition teacher Ron Miller were the first guys to really have a lot of faith in me.”
Bickel earned both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at UM, graduating with a top-tier jazz gig waiting for him.
“About a month before graduation, I ended up in [late jazz trumpeter] Maynard Ferguson’s band. I did that gig for a couple of years, and it brought me to new places, including Europe. I decided to settle down in Bavaria and start my own music school. We had jam sessions and ensembles, and people were into it. It was a really important service, I think, for the public at large over there.”
Bickel would return to the U.S. after getting the call to join trumpeter Arturo Sandoval’s band, staying with him for a number of years. “I learned the necessity of being on it every night,” Bickel says of time with Sandoval. “Say what you’ve got to say, then get out of the way.”
In 2000, Bickel started his teaching career at Virginia Tech. He would leave to replace renowned pianist, educator, and Marsalis family patriarch Ellis Marsalis at the University of New Orleans. Two years later, he’d get the call that would bring him full circle.
“I heard the news that my teacher at UM, Vince Maggio, was retiring. I was actually quite happy in New Orleans, but some of my former teachers asked me if I would apply. I was very concerned that they pick the right person to succeed Vince. And to my surprise, I wound up getting an offer.
“I feel blessed to play and teach,” Bickel enthuses. “It took me a few years to realize that 50% of my job is inspiring people to find something in themselves that’s probably already there, but they may not know it.”