Oberlin Jazz Jam on the River
Every spring, the Oberlin jazz studies department selects seven students to participate in the Oberlin Jazz Septet, an all-star ensemble committed to representing its program around the country, for the following school year. This year’s group got an early start with a performance at the Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival (originally the Detroit-Montreaux Jazz Festival) on Monday, Sept. 4.
OJS performed on an old-style luxury Mississippi River paddleboat called the Detroit Princess, cruising the river between the Motor City and Windsor, Canada. The group played for a moderately sized crowd and was well received. OJS director and professor of jazz studies and double bass, Peter Dominguez, knows full well the deep knowledge and respect for jazz that lies in Detroit.
He stated that the city has an “intellectual jazz community with an educated public,” which can be a treat for groups that rise to the challenge; OJS certainly did. Junior saxophonist Will Cleary described how the overall appreciation for jazz found around the festival was overwhelming, and that the diversity among audiences was inspirational.
A group’s song selection is especially important in a city with such an audience as Detroit’s. Dominguez made sure to bring music to the table that would be most appropriate, including hard-swinging and bluesy charts from bandleaders Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie and Horace Silver.
One tune that stood out was “Ballad for Doll,” a gorgeous piece of music that the great alto saxophonist Jackie McLean wrote for his wife. This piece was the group’s homage to McLean, who passed away just last spring.
Other tunes OJS included in their set were “Cheesecake” by Dexter Gordon, “Backstage Sally” by Wayne Shorter, “Mamacita” by Joe Henderson and “In Case You Missed It” by Bobby Watson. The group also performed two originals. “Suudsu” by junior trumpeter Miller Tinkerhess, was a fast, odd-metered, and modern-sounding piece, and “Villain Gone Pious” by senior bassist Russell Manning, was a ballad complete with time changes a la Charles Mingus.
The group began rehearsing in Oberlin on the 29th of August, clocking nearly six hours per day for five straight days. Musicians everywhere know that the demands of this amount of rehearsal time can be met only by the strongest and most dedicated.
“It actually wasn’t that hard to mesh as a group,” said trumpeter Tinkerhess. “I think everyone had played with members of the group already, and everyone was familiar with each other’s playing.” Senior guitarist Charlie Higgins felt similarly: “We all have pretty cohesive musical preferences so there was not a whole lot of disagreement over song selection. It all just kind of fit together.”
While in Detroit, the musicians had the opportunity to see as many artists as they could. They experienced world-class jazz artists such as Curtis Fuller, Bennie Maupin, Ahmad Jamal, Cecil McBee, Marcus Belgrave, Louis Hayes and Charles McPherson.
“The festival was pretty tremendous,” Higgins said.
OJS is not new to the Detroit Jazz Festival. Making yearly visits since the late ’90s, the group participated in the college-level small ensemble competition adjudicated by members of the International Association of Jazz Educators.
Dominguez explained, however, that about four years ago the competition rejected OJS’s bid to enter the competition again since they were winning many of the awards. The competition was then limited to Michigan schools, and three years ago OJS began performing at the festival again, except this time it was on the professional stage.
With the blessing of legendary trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who is visiting professor of jazz trumpet at Oberlin and a Detroit native, OJS has found success nearly every year at the festival.
OJS is not only a vehicle of representation for the jazz department — Dominguez has set up the group in such a way that allows its members to actively participate in the production, promotion and performances undertaken, which are invaluable skills in the music business.
Every musician is assigned a specific task to make the group work in the business setting. Higgins is the group’s photographer and historian, collecting material from performances and putting together journals for the records. Tinkerhess is the publicist, putting together biographies and making sure programs are accurate. Cleary is the librarian, keeping the players’ sheet music and keeping track of the repertoire.
Junior pianist Sullivan Fortner, who is participating in OJS for a second year, is the artistic consultant for the group, taking charge of many of the musical aspects of the band such as deciding tempos, calling tunes, and generally improving the group’s sound. Junior drummer Alex Ritz takes on the task of recording concerts both aurally and visually.
Senior bassist Russell Manning is the spokesperson, introducing band members and talking about the songs directly to audiences. Senior trombonist Rachel Levin is the equipment manager, making sure the stages are appropriately set up for performances.
OJS will be taking their annual Winter Term tour this year to the West Coast, playing not only for high schools and performing arts schools, but also in several jazz clubs. They will be in the recording studio this fall and again in the spring (relying heavily on self-production), and will hopefully be awarded a spot at the Tri-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland next spring. They are also performing at Jazz Forum on Friday, Sept. 29 at Hales Gymnasium at 12:15 p.m.