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For trombonist Doug Leibinger, the new Director of Jazz Studies at Sonoma State University, learning to play jazz is a lot like learning to talk.

First, you acquire the vocabulary. Then, you figure out how to string words together into sentences. Finally, you forget everything you've learned, listen deeply, and respond to what others are saying.

"Music is much better when there's a conversation," the 42-year-old musician said while sipping coffee at a Rohnert Park coffee shop. "Ideally, we want a lively conversation."

Leibinger proved his mettle as a musical communicator during his interview for the SSU post, which consisted of a jam session with SSU jazz instructors Randy Vincent on guitar and George Marsh on drums.

"We played no more than five minutes, and I knew," said Marsh, jazz drummer with the David Grisman Quintet. "He listens. Oh, he's in tune. He's melodic. He's sensitive ... and he's a very humble guy, which is nice."

Since he started teaching at SSU in the fall of 2009, Leibinger has changed the shape and sound of the SSU jazz program.

A passionate proponent of big-band music — a swinging form of jazz popular from the early 1930s to the late 1940s — he re-established the Jazz Orchestra (after a five-year hiatus), restructured the jazz curriculum and created a new lecture class known as the Jazz Forum, where he invites professionals such as saxophonist Lee Konitz to give a master class.

"They come and perform their music, with commentary, in a relaxed setting," he said. "Lee is a legend in jazz. He played on Miles Davis recordings in 1949."

As the only full-time faculty member in the jazz program, Leibinger teaches most of the core classes, from jazz theory and improvisation to jazz arranging and composition.

One of his strengths as a teacher is helping students make the connection between the cognitive mind and the physical body.

"I like the hands-on approach," he said. "I teach it, and then you get out your instrument and play it."

In addition to the 19-piece Jazz Orchestra, he coaches an array of smaller jazz ensembles. There are about 20 jazz majors in the program, including 10 new ones who enrolled this fall.

"Because it's such a small program, he knows everybody and we all get a lot of attention," said saxophonist Colin Friedkin, a jazz major at SSU. "But he's hard on the guys. He knows what everybody's capable of, and he really demands that you put in the work."

Leibinger lives in a townhouse near the SSU campus with his wife, Cindy, and their two young children: Zoe, 3, and Max, 2. They couple moved to Rohnert Park from Columbia, Mo., where Leibinger served as Director of Jazz Performance Studies at the University of Missouri for four years.

A native of Chicago who grew up near Wrigley Field, Leibinger first picked up a trombone in fifth grade. In junior high school, he started playing in a jazz band, and by the time he was in high school, he was hooked on music, from big band to rock 'n' roll.

But the trombonist got a "big dose of reality" when he arrived at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. Students at the well-established jazz school, where he earned his bachelor's, master's and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees, were already touring with such jazz legends as drummer Buddy Rich.

"I lived in the practice room and really got a solid education," he said. "When I graduated in 1989, I was gigging in the nightclubs."

As a trombone soloist with the University of Miami Concert Jazz Band, Leibinger snagged a 2004 Grammy nomination for his work on composer Maria Schneider's "Three Romances."

The multi-faceted musician, who also plays bass, piano, baritone sax and accordion, looks uncannily like Canadian actor Dan Aykroyd, a founder of the Blues Brothers band with John Belushi. So it may be no surprise that Leibinger has also performed with his share of R&B and blues bands. He played bass guitar with The Drifters, keyboards with Jimmy Buffett and trombone on P. Diddy's album, "The Saga Continues."

"He has a wide palate, and he's very open to all kinds of jazz," Marsh said. "But he loves big-band music, and that's really wonderful because he's a very melodic, swinging listener."

The public will have a rare opportunity to listen to Leibinger swing with the Faculty Jazz Ensemble at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4, at the Green Music Center Concert Hall as part of a fall series of free concerts that require reservations. (To reserve, call 664-2353.)

Leibinger will lead the ensemble, which consists of part-time jazz instructors Marsh and Vincent, bassist Cliff Hugo, pianist John Simon, trumpet player Pete Estabrook, saxophonist Jordan Wardlaw, flutist Bob Afifi and vocalist Bonnie Brooks.

The concert program will range from jazz ballads such as Abbey Lincoln's "Throw it Away" to original tunes by the faculty, such as Marsh's "Waltz for Lucy."

The ensemble will also serve up "Breakfast," an original tune by Leibinger, along with Leibinger's arrangement of Scott Colley's "Masoosong."

Leibinger inherited SSU's jazz program from the beloved bass player Mel Graves, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2008 after teaching at SSU for 26 years.

Although he never knew Graves — a professional player who composed and performed with the likes of pianist Mose Allison and saxophonist Joe Henderson — Leibinger said it's hard not to feel his presence.

"He was revered, and that doesn't begin to describe it," he said. "I'm not trying to fill his shoes. ... It's different shoes now."

While Graves was well known as a performer, Leibinger has carved out his own niche as a composer. His name was recently added to the roster of arrangers at Walrus Music Publishing company in Pismo Beach, which picked up four of his compositions for large jazz ensembles.

Leibinger's dream is to record his own big band CD someday. Meanwhile, he's teaching his students to listen and learn from the jazz greats of the last 100 years.

"It's very hard to define what jazz is," he said. "But it has to be a foot in the past ... and a foot moving forward."

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.