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Talent, diversity and all that jazz

Tufts Jazz Orchestra features some of the Hill’s best musicians

Published: Thursday, April 12, 2012

Updated: Thursday, April 12, 2012 10:04

Do you know the difference between a rock star and a jazz musician? A rock star plays three chords for 3,000 fans, while a jazz musician plays 3,000 chords for three fans. While many people revere jazz music as a great American art form, there seems to be a big gap between how people talk about jazz music and their actual appreciation for listening to it.

This is a shame because there are many highly talented and interesting jazz ensembles out there today, including Tufts’ very own Jazz Orchestra.

Tufts’ Director of Jazz Activities Joel LaRue Smith leads the Tufts Jazz Orchestra, which is featured as a course in the music department and holds two to three performances during the school year at Goddard Chapel. Smith is an acclaimed pianist and composer whose debut album, “September’s Child,” was released in 2008 and featured many of his own original compositions. He is also a highly respected educator, and has been a compelling lecturer of music and the director of the Tufts Jazz Orchestra since 1996.

Smith’s students learn jazz improvisation, instrumental and ensemble skills that are honed through rehearsals and performances of both older and more contemporary jazz compositions and arrangements. The group’s members are constantly learning different elements of jazz musicianship, including syncopated rhythms and approaches to bebop and blues harmonies. Students in the orchestra have the ability to both read sheet music and improvise, an impressive skill set.

The Tufts Jazz Orchestra performs a mixture of jazz, fusion, funk and Afro− Cuban dance music, along with many famous jazz standards from Broadway and Hollywood favorites.

“I’ve seen the Jazz Orchestra play before, and I love how diverse their sound is,” Carolyn Winslow, a freshman and self−proclaimed jazz lover, said. “They play a lot of different types of jazz music — and all really well. I’m always amazed to see how talented the entire group really is. I can’t wait to hear them again soon. They are definitely one of my favorite groups on campus.”

While there is no shortage of jazz groups at Tufts — it’s home to three chamber jazz ensembles and a jazz choir in addition to the orchestra — what makes the Jazz Orchestra so special is the rich blend of music the group performs. The Jazz Orchestra combines the musical styles of North American, South American and Afro−Cuban jazz in its shows. Smith said that, for years, the orchestra has created and performed arrangements meant to “inspire, educate, enrich and entertain” the audiences at its shows, while also exploring the diverse forms of jazz that the world has to offer.

The Jazz Orchestra features many talented and dedicated Tufts musicians who practice together on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Though it varies from year to year depending on the number of qualified performers available, the orchestra is typically made up of one to four singers, about five saxophone players, five trombone players, five or six trumpeters and a diverse rhythm section. The rhythm section uses many instruments including piano, bass, guitar, drums and some Afro−Caribbean percussion instruments like the congas, timbales, bongos and different types of bells.

The Jazz Orchestra performs works from a wide variety of jazz genres, from early jazz masters to the top contemporary works of active jazz and Latin jazz composers. Some of the jazz composers whose music the orchestra has performed in the past few years include: Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Neal Hefti, Frank Foster, Sammy Nestico, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Toshiko Ashioki, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Rob Lussier, Bob Brookemeyer, Manny Albam, Charles Mingus and Maria Schneider.

The ensemble not only takes on the works of jazz legends, but also plays arrangements of music from classic Broadway shows.These include some of the works written by greats like George and Ira Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Eubie Blake.

The Jazz Orchestra has also performed works from diverse and influential Latin jazz composers over the years, such as Wayne Wallace, Humberto Ramirez, Mario Bauza, Arturo Sandoval, Chico O’Farrell, Chano Pozo, Dizzy Gillespie, Hilario Duran and Jeremy Fletcher.

The Tufts Jazz Orchestra not only performs previously published works, but also encourages and performs different pieces from some of its more advanced student composers. Smith and the ensemble are trying to help keep the tradition of jazz orchestra composition and performances alive at Tufts by encouraging students to be as involved in their music as possible. This helps promote a stronger understanding of jazz, as some students get involved with the composition and arrangement side of the music on top of playing and improvising.

The orchestra’s musical endeavors are an attempt to bring innovation and a genuine excitement for the arts — and arts education — to Tufts and the surrounding community.

“One of the most rewarding parts of the Jazz Orchestra is the extremely high level of musicianship the group holds itself to. Many of us played jazz before Tufts, and the Jazz Orchestra provides an outlet that would otherwise be unavailable to us as non−dual degree students,” Jazz Orchestra member and saxophonist Nate Tarrh, a sophomore, said.

The high level of talent in the ensemble is evidenced by its performances for audiences around the world. Over the past decade, the Tufts Jazz Orchestra has toured Havana and Prague on multiple occasions. It has also played at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, as well as in Costa Rica and Bulgaria. Closer to home, the Jazz Orchestra has performed at various Massachusetts public schools, churches and assisted−living homes.

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