By GARY FERRINGTON
After a 25-hour journey that included crossing nine time zones, some lost luggage, and an airline-damaged baritone saxophone, the award winning Oregon Jazz Ensemble (OJE) arrived in France just in time to perform before an enthusiastic audience at the July 10 Vienne Jazz Festival.
It took a little coaxing but the bari sax was un-bent and with a charge of youthful enthusiasm to overcome the restlessness of little sleep, the University of Oregon student band hit the stage an hour after they landed, remembers OJE member Jared Yakel. The 20-member ensemble played a mix of classic jazz pieces and new works by ensemble members and alumni, on an outdoor stage surrounded by centuries-old buildings. It was raining, but the crowd stayed on to listen to the music. Facebook postings that evening by OJE members saluted the “killer” solo performances of fellow musicians Devin Wright, Jessie Smith, and Jared Yakel. “This tour is off to a heck of a start!!” one member wrote.
After the UO students’ performance, band members seized the opportunity to hear the festival’s evening headliner concert featuring internationally renowned Brazilian music masters Sergio Mendes and Eliane Elias in an ancient 8,000-seat mountainside Roman amphitheater. Smith recalls how thousands of people sat quietly rocking back and forth to the music and thoroughly enjoying every note.
The Vienne concert kicked off a six-day, three-country tour with scheduled performances in four international jazz festivals. UO Jazz Studies director Professor Steve Owen organized the educational tour (made possible by many friends of the School of Music and Dance with lead gifts from Dwight and GleeAnn Davis, and Alan and Tamara Evans) to introduce students “to some of the great jazz festivals of the world, and to help them train for the life of a working musician,” according to a School of Music and Dance (SOMD) release. The School also wanted to share with European audiences some of the great music being composed by members of the ensemble and recent graduates.
Well regarded in Northwest jazz circles, “OJE students have individually won numerous competitions, including a first prize win in the Yamaha Jazz Division of the National Trumpet Competition; triumph at the Seattle Women’s Jazz Orchestra’s composition contest; and a jazz arrangement award from Downbeat magazine,” according to the SOMD web site. “Since 2000, the OJE has been named “Outstanding College Big Band” for eight of the ten years the ensemble has attended the Reno Jazz Festival — more than any other college ensemble.” Now they would have the chance to showcase their music to an international audience, and to learn important lessons about the life of a jazz musician.
With a day to recover from jet lag, the band moved on to the celebrated July 12-13 Montreux Jazz Festival for which they had been especially invited to perform twice – a special honor. Leaving behind the beautiful Lake Geneva region of Switzerland, they crossed the border into Italy with performances at the La Spezia Festival on July 14th and the Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia on the 16th. After a brief stop in Rome, an amazing journey came to an end.
The sound of the Oregon Jazz Ensemble played well with European audiences, who often showed greater enthusiasm for jazz than the band has experienced at home. “The thing that amazed me the most about our trip and playing American music for European audiences was just how much the audiences love jazz,” Smith recalls. “When we were eating dinner or having drinks, or just window-shopping, some stranger would come up to and tell me how much they enjoyed our performance. I felt a little bit like a rock-star by the end of it all! That analogy is funny to me… in America we celebrate the ‘rock star’ but in Europe they also celebrate the ‘jazz star.’”
The Europeans appreciated contemporary Oregon music as much as vintage American jazz. “The reception that the OJE received for our own compositions and arrangements was the most gratifying part of the trip for me,” Owen commented by email. “Universally, audiences responded enthusiastically to both current students pieces as well as alums. Mixing our pieces into a program with masterworks by Duke Ellington, Gil Evans, (and others) speaks to the quality of each and every piece we performed.” Owen noted that UO alum James Miley’s (DMA 1999) arrangement of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” drew a tremendous response.
“Jetty,” a composition by current OJE trumpeter Steve Sharp, was also well received. “Steve’s piece is high energy, and the ending takes you off guard,” says OJE member Jared Yakel. “To me, this kind of piece quickly transfers the energy from the band to the audience. The audiences seemed to cheer more for it than any other student piece we performed.”
Yakel notes that the audiences were often “young and hip” and it seemed to be a part of their culture to seek out new music. “Europeans liked the artistry, and really appreciated what we had to say musically,” added fellow member Josh Hettwer. “It was a treat to play for such an attentive audience.”
Jamming and Busking
The students’ performances extended beyond the festival stages. A trio of musicians known for its busking in Eugene wanted to see what it was like on the streets in France and on the second day in Vienne, Jared Yakel and Joshua Hettwer (saxophone) with Tony Glausi (trumpet) set up on a street corner and received a positive reception by locals for their music. Then, according to Glausi, they “were approached by a restaurant owner who offered us free dinner to play for an hour.”
For Yakel, that was a dream come true. “One of my goals in life is to play music and be able to make a living for myself,” he says, “and the fact that we earned ourselves a free dinner by playing music in Europe was very cool.”
The students had a “great time speaking the language of jazz” with others, UO School of Music and Dance staffer Lance Miller wrote in an email. “Almost everywhere we went, we found late night jam sessions with the local musicians!”
One was especially memorable. “It was about midnight in La Spezia when our concert ended,” Hettwer remembers. “We had heard from one of the MCs that there was a jam session happening a few blocks away. Patrick Jones and I were the only ones who were really excited about the opportunity, and everyone else was pretty apathetic about it.” Though it was late after a day of travel and performance, “somehow we managed to convince about two thirds of the group that it was a good idea. The large convoy of people walked to a little bar where a bass player, a guitar player, and a hilarious 80-year-old drummer, who had more energy than all of us combined, were performing. I immediately pulled out my sax, ambitious to play, and they called me up as soon as they saw it. It sparked the opportunity for everyone to hop up there, and even a high school big band from Tucson, Arizona that was following us around all of the festivals showed up too. We had a great time and eventually left feeling very musically fulfilled.”
Performing on tour taught the youthful musicians some valuable lessons. “It is challenging to hop off of a bus or a plane in a place you’ve never been before and play your best,” Yakel says. “I now have a new-found respect for the touring musician. The tour left me feeling hopeful.” For Toni Glaussi, the trip “solidified my opinions about touring; it is very difficult and not necessarily my favorite part about a musical career, but fun because of the opportunity it gives musicians to share music,” he says. “I look forward to more touring, but never too much of it!”
Beyond the performances, that sharing taught the students lessons that transcended the bandstand, enabling them to connect with musicians from very different cultures. “From the first interaction that our students had with the various musicians and production personnel at these festivals to the last, I know that our students realized how much they truly have in common with them,” Owen says. “And that music is a powerful conduit between all cultures. Many of our students made personal contacts with other musicians that I am certain they will maintain.”
Group chemistry is as critical in jazz as in all ensemble music, and the tour strengthened the ensemble’s bonds with each other. “The OJE sounded fabulous, and we had a great time,” says Smith. “Not only did we get to go to some amazing places and play great music but, we got to go with our good friends, and we bonded with each other even more throughout the trip. It was an experience I’ll never forget.”
Their experience will benefit the players long after they return. “Touring Europe has increased my passion and love for what I do,” Hettwer says. “The audiences in Europe …helped take our energy to a new level. They loved our music for what it was and truly made playing music a much more amazing experience. I’ve truly been inspired to work even harder at my music goals.”
More tour videos will be posted online. Check the Oregon Jazz Ensemble web page and its Facebook site for announcements. Unedited excerpts of three concerts is viewable by those with Facebook accounts by linking to the Oregon Jazz Ensemble Video Album.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and coordinates OAW’s Oregon ComposersWatch.