Graduating senior Ben Lanzi, who is majoring in music and minoring in Chinese, is ubiquitously associated with the Tufts music department and jazz scene. Lanzi, a pianist, singer and conductor, has performed with the Tufts Jazz Orchestra, Small Jazz Ensembles, Chamber Singers and Concert Choir. But perhaps what Lanzi is most known for in the Tufts community is founding and leading the Freshman 15, a student-run jazz big band. Lanzi recently reflected on his journey from musical rookie to leader.
Somewhat shockingly, Lanzi did not even know how to read music or play an instrument until high school.
“I didn’t get into music till I was a sophomore in high school,” Lanzi said. “I used to listen to K-pop because I thought Korean was a cool language. … There was one song that sampled Moonlight Sonata, which everyone loves, and I was like, ‘This is really cool.’... What if I learned to play this?”
Lanzi then started classical piano lessons, where he fell in love with the instrument and the music.
“I was very into it,” Lanzi said. “That was how I got away from things. And I just really loved classical music.”
The same year he began piano, after joining his high school’s choir for an arts credit, Lanzi surprised himself by developing a passion for singing. Being in choir gave Lanzi the chance to try singing jazz, where he discovered a more comfortable form of musical performance.
“At the end of high school, I had the opportunity to sing in the jazz band in the school,” Lanzi said. “I loved that, being front and center. On piano, I wouldn’t like to have been front and center, because I’d be nervous. But singing I really felt at home. I didn’t know how to sing jazz, really. I was kind of just making it up.”
Despite his inexperience in jazz, Lanzi dived headfirst into his newfound passion the moment he arrived at Tufts.
“I got to Tufts and I was like, ‘Well, I have to do something with [jazz singing],’” Lanzi said. “I met a few people, who are now my friends, in the lobby of Granoff at the music open house. … I was like, ‘What if we started a band?’”
The impetus for creating a student-run jazz band instead of going through one of the music department ensembles was to give Lanzi more creative control and create a sense of camaraderie.
“I had such a good time in the first rehearsals and I was like, ‘Wow, I feel at home doing this,’” Lanzi said. “And it was a trust thing. Most of those people, the people in the group, had way more experience than me, … but I knew that I loved that sound, and that I wanted to get it. I wanted to be able to have my own vision and decide what we did.”
By the end of that fall, Lanzi’s ragtag group quickly grew into a full big band known as the Freshman 15. After a yearlong hiatus in Lanzi’s sophomore year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Freshman 15 hit the ground running, becoming a Tufts Community Union-recognized organization in the spring of Lanzi’s junior year. The band also gained more of a unique identity when, after a year of dedicated study to the art of arranging big band music, Lanzi started incorporating his own charts of jazz standards in Freshman 15 performances.
While the Freshman 15 has allowed Lanzi to challenge himself as an individual and learn singing, jazz, leading and big band arranging, a key point of the band is to connect with people.
“One of my mission statements … is to introduce jazz to audiences here as an enjoyable form of art and music that should make you want to dance, and just enjoy yourself,” Lanzi said. “People love our shows. We never worry about [whether we will] get enough people at the show or whatever. They show up, and they love it. And I think they like the music, which makes me feel good, because my job is to make sure that we play music that they like.”
One of Lanzi’s fondest memories with the Freshman 15 was when the band brought big band jazz to the wider Tufts community in November 2021. Invited by Tufts University Social Collective, the Freshman 15 opened for saxophonist Tim Hall on the roof of Tisch Library.
“We were all just there having a good time. … We had a huge crowd, there was like a couple hundred people,” Lanzi recalled. “It felt so informal and fun. That’s how it should be, because that's how big bands are meant to be enjoyed. … It was kind of a dream come true.”
Ultimately, Lanzi looks back fondly on his time leading the Freshman 15.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done,” Lanzi said. “It’s been a great source of camaraderie for me.”
Having entered with only three years of musical experience and just one of jazz, Lanzi founded and led a jazz big band and contributed to a whole host of other musical ensembles. In the process, he not only enriched himself through his dedicated study of music but also enriched the entire Tufts community by sharing his passion. At the end of his Tufts career, Lanzi serves as an inspiration for chasing passion, inspiring others and pursuing what makes us happy.