Professor Les Thimmig, who taught at UW–Madison for over 50 years, died April 28, 2024.

Leslie L. Thimmig (“Les”) grew up in Joliet, Illinois, where he played his saxophone as a teenager in jazz clubs. He graduated from the Eastman School of Music with a Bachelor of Music degree in composition, and was awarded MMA and DMA degrees in composition from Yale University. He taught music theory at Yale before joining the faculty of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, to direct the composition/theory department. In 1971, Thimmig joined the music faculty at UW–Madison to direct the composition program. He later added woodwind performance and jazz studies to his teaching curriculum.

Thimmig was an internationally known soloist and composer. His compositions have been performed in North and South America, Europe, and Africa, and his commissioned work for the Da Capo Chamber Players premiered in Carnegie Hall. His jazz career included performances with the orchestras of Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Oliver Nelson, and Duke Ellington. He recalled fondly his dates in the Catskill Mountains with prominent band leaders of the ’60s, and his work during the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s with leading artists.

Additional performing affiliations included membership in The Thimmig-Johnson Duo (Madison), Present Music (Milwaukee), Adam Unsworth Ensemble (Ann Arbor), New Sousa Band (San Francisco), and Chicago Clarinet Ensemble. He was leader of the Les Thimmig 7, which performed his compositions exclusively.

Thimmig was revered as a devoted teacher and mentor by his students. His positive attitude and skill at enhancing their performance–and his excitement at assisting graduate students preparing for doctoral evaluations–were essential to what he believed was his obligation to the university.

In the jazz field, Thimmig’s role at the university evolved over the years. When he first arrived, he was involved with the UW Jazz Ensemble for a short period of time. Then he helped teach classes for a jazz major that was first developed in 1979, even though the major was short lived. From 1982 to 1988, Thimmig helmed the UW Jazz Ensemble again. While never his sole focus, jazz remained an important part of Thimmig’s career.

Thimmig most recently ran the Jazz Composers Group, one of several jazz ensembles at the School of Music. Sometimes called a “laboratory,” it was a place where jazz students were able to experiment under Thimmig’s tutelage. With a foundation library of Thimmig’s work, the group slowly became centered on student writing each semester.