Early in a recent set at Eugene’s Jazz Station, a University of Oregon jazz combo slowed things down with “Tree of Life,” a melancholy ballad composed and played by guitarist Ellie Jakes.
Pianist Laz Glickman drove the piece with a simple melodic line, while Jakes and tenor saxophonists Taylor Lhamon and Rob Davis explored the improvisational spaces. The music was hypnotic, relaxing, wistful—one imagined a corner bar at closing, a barkeep sweeping up, the remaining regulars staring into empty glasses, looking for the reasons behind a handful of bad decisions.
“We were really trying things and following each other—everybody was paying attention to each other,” Jakes said, afterward. “I’m excited to see what we’re able to do. People who are listening to each other as they play, that only gets better with time.”
A graduate student in jazz composition, Jakes has firsthand experience with a band’s ability to coalesce over time. Jakes was part of a 10-day, three-country European tour last summer during which 22 student members of the university’s Oregon Jazz Ensemble grew together while playing some of the world’s top jazz festivals.
“We have so few opportunities that require our students to have to play night in and night out, like professional touring groups do,” says Steve Owen, Philip H. Knight Professor of Jazz Studies at the School of Music and Dance. “Part of the challenge is learning to keep your focus and deal with adversity—to be able to walk off a bus and be able to play when conditions aren’t ideal.”
The ensemble—an elite big band of undergraduate and graduate students—played the famed Montreux Jazz Festival on the shores of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva, the Vienne Jazz Festival in France, and the Umbria Jazz Festival, one of the largest and most prestigious events on Italy’s music calendar. “It’s always been my dream to play big jazz festivals, like Montreux and Umbria, but I never thought that I would be able to—especially at 19,” says Nik Barber, a sophomore majoring in jazz studies who plays drums.
The band drew a major morale boost being on the bill alongside acclaimed jazz artists. And that confidence came through in the performances—the band’s set at the Vienne Jazz Festival earned an ovation and ended with the large crowd clapping in unison, asking for more.
“I feel honored to be a musician when I see people asking for an encore,” says senior saxophonist Alexis Rosenberg, a double major in jazz studies and music education. “People at home aren’t as receptive to jazz as they are in Europe. In Europe, you’ll see people having a great time, asking for encores as if it were a pop concert in America.”
For many students, the tour was their first time traveling outside of the United States. Sightseeing trips to historical and cultural landmarks reinforced lessons learned in the classroom and enabled the group to appreciate art in various forms.
Students saw early music manuscripts in the library of a medieval cathedral in the Italian city of Siena. They visited Florence and Rome, stopping at cathedrals, historical sites, and museums. A high point for many was a viewing of Michelangelo’s Pietà, in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.
Jonathan Corona, a master’s student in saxophone performanceand jazz studies, was captivated by “the venues and landscapes,” he says. “That was the most breathtaking aspect of the trip—looking out in the distance and seeing the Alps or a beautiful lake or a castle.” For the touring musician, views of postcard-perfect scenery can be few and far between, of course. But the rigors of life on the road helped the students forge stronger personal relationships and play better as a band.
“They end up coming closer together,” says Paul Krueger, instructor of jazz studies, who joined the tour. “They’re hanging out on the bus, or having dinner together, so they end up developing those close personal relationships, and it really changes how the music sounds. They perform at a higher level and with more passion.”
The jazz program owes much to Herbert Merker, BA ’62 (foreign language), who established the Merker Jazz Combo Scholarship in 2014 to fund as many as five graduate and undergraduate scholarships each year. Merker and patron Marcy Hammock also made the trip abroad, observing that the student performances proved the old adage that music is a universal language.
“Most of the people that were in the audience didn’t speak English, but they understood the music and they appreciated it,” says Hammock. “They were awakened by the similarities of our cultures through music, and the fact that jazz is truly an American art form that’s appreciated around the world.”
Says Merker: “I’ve seen [jazz graduate teaching fellow] Ken Mastrogiovanni play drums so many times at the Jazz Station, and to see him on the world stage in Montreux, it’s really heartwarming. The whole thing just reinforces my feeling for the jazz program.”
—By Steve Fyffe and Matt Cooper, University Communications
Photo by Lance Miller