The UM Jazz Fest: A Testament to Passion

Thursday, February 13, 2020 - 4:43pm

I’ve always been confused about why many believe jazz is old and boring. The University of Michigan Jazz Festival on Feb. 8 exemplified its ever changing nature. Various ensembles performed tunes old and new to the fascination of an audience comprised of all different ages. The event honored influential 1950s jazz trumpet player Clifford Brown, acknowledging the past while looking toward the future.

The first of the three main events of the day was a talk given by trumpet player Scotty Barnhart (featured guest of the day and current leader of the Count Basie Orchestra) and Music, Theatre & Dance Professor Ed Sarath on Clifford Brown. The small amount of attendees was engulfed by the large Stamps Auditorium. But rather than feeling like a birthday party that no one showed up to, Barnhart’s welcoming laugh and easy manner made the audience feel lucky to be small in number. He answered questions, told jokes and even jammed with a few trumpet students. Afterwards, he greeted members of the audience. The talk was emblematic of jazz: perhaps not as attended as it used to be, but warm, laid back and spontaneous.

Later that afternoon, the UM Lab Jazz Band took the same stage. Directed by Dennis Wilson (who also organized the festival), the group gave an impressive, mostly uptempo performance. Their fourth piece —“The Second Race” by Thad Jones — featured bassist Paul Keller, a local Ann Arbor big band leader. He and drummer Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Mitchell Dangler spontaneously played with time on this tune, impressively slowing the quick tempo down to almost half speed as Keller soloed, then turning it back up again. One misstep, and the drummer and bassist, who held the time of the band, could lose their place and the whole song would fall apart.

“(Paul Keller) just came up and, during the song, before his solo, he was like, ‘I’m gonna slow down and then speed up. Follow me,’” Dangler said. “So that was fun, that was really fun.”

The last event, featuring the University Jazz Band and the Jazz Faculty Trio with Scotty Barnhart, was held in the glamorous Rackham Auditorium. “Leonardo’s Express,” performed by the U-M Jazz Band, emphasizing the compositional talent of student and split-lead trumpet Music, Theatre & Dance junior Addison Tharp  stood out to me. The players moved their bodies to the music, trumpet players accentuating their notes in the arch of their bodies, guitarist Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Graham Helft visibly reacting in appreciation to various solos, all coming together in the surge of passion this piece created. 

“[We] always want to play student compositions… that’s really quite an undertaking, we just wanted to celebrate that,” said Ellen Rowe, band leader.

The day ended with a performance from the Jazz Faculty Trio, featuring Scotty Barnhart. They announced that they hadn’t rehearsed their fourth piece, “Our Love Is Here To Stay” by George Gershwin, but would see where it went. Bassist Ralphe Armstrong gave an almost theatrical performance of his solo, wiggling his eyebrows and dancing around the bass, causing the audience to cheer for him. Barnhart screeched out tricky high notes with perfect clarity, leaving the audience in astonishment.

Despite the fun, jazz is renowned as a boys’ club, and this time was, unfortunately, no different. The U-M Lab Jazz Band had one woman in it, on trombone, while the U-M Jazz Band had four women, each out of maybe 20 members. The Jazz Faculty Trio was entirely men. When asked about her experience as a female bandleader, Ellen Rowe gave a wry chuckle and said, “it’s challenging. It is very nice to have some women [in the band] … we really work hard to get women in the program.”

The show was filled with  a magnetic passion. You could see it in the players’ smiles, their reactions to solos and the way they physically dug into their groove. You could hear it as Armstrong laughed, fingers flying up and down the bass, and, of course, in the music. 

As Dangler replied when asked why he got into jazz, “It’s all about having fun.”