Jazz band brushes up on essentials in NYC

Carissa Bowlin

Steve Butcher, a saxophonist for the Kent State jazz band, recently practiced for the trip to New York.

Credit: Carissa Bowlin

NEW YORK CITY — With a-one-a-two-a-three, Kent State jazz band director, Chas Baker, sounds off the count to begin another rehearsal, but this time, it’s in New York City.

While many students were basking in the sun during spring break, the band brushed up its fundamentals at the “Essentially Ellington” jazz clinic in New York City’s Lincoln Center. This is the band’s first trip to the city, and Baker is excited about the opportunity the trip gave the band.

“We are fortunate to have such a supportive director at Kent’s School of Music,” Baker said. “Mary Sue Hyatt has already done so much for us. It’s thanks to her that we have the support to go.”

The band may not have a director’s baton waving at them to stay in-sync, but it does have other methods to keep the tunes flowing.

“In jazz ensembles you have to learn the basic fundamentals of jazz, and put them together with a lot of listening,” said Kenneth Gill, trombonist. “You have to use your ear.”

Professional jazz performers taught the clinic, and the band used the time in New York City to observe these professionals practice what they preach as much as possible. Because of the structure of jazz music, observation is just as important as playing where the progression of the performer is concerned.

Observation is especially useful during solo improvisation, or playing what a performer feels spontaneously. The improvisation is done within the context of chord progressions, or changes in the music’s tones.

“The chord changes are like your playground in improvisation,” Gill said. “You can come up with your melody based on what you know. It can be anything from hip-hop to classical influences. You have to have a creative mind and go exploring.”

Mastering the art of jazz is not accomplished without its fair share of homework. Performing well means knowing what to expect, or as Baker refers to it, the “expectation principal.” This homework includes understanding things like the Blues progression and Blues Form.

“We all just know the Blues progression,” said Matt Jordan, another trombonist. “We know what’s coming up well enough to follow a soloist who is improvising.”

And so the art, the challenge, of jazz music is unique. Performers are established through intuition and driven by feeling. After learning the basic 12-bar Blues form and chord progressions, the only concrete study of jazz is the history of what has been experimented with and deemed successful before.

The rest is repetition in practicing and putting old musical ideas together in a different way to create a new sound. Often new musical ideas in jazz are established accidentally when musicians are jamming.

“We’re always listening to the rhythm section,” Jordan said. “They are the heartbeat of the band.”

The heart of the band, or the rhythm section, keeps the band going by conquering the expectation principle.

“When a soloist is (using improvisation) we are keeping time,” said drummer Pete Sustarsic. “We are also listening to that person and listening so hard that we know what they’re going to play next. It’s a different level of listening.”

Beyond listening to the soloist, another member of the band’s rhythm section, Justin Hofmann, keeps the composer in mind.

“I like to make sure I’m interpreting inside the context of what the composer wants.” Hofmann said.

Once the clinic is over, these men and women don’t just hop out to see the sights of New York City. Instead, members continue to practice until they are comfortable with their performance. The last few don’t make it to the exit until they are booted out by the next group waiting to use the hall.

Contact Performing Arts reporter Carissa Bowlin at [email protected].