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AU Jazz Ensembles to Play Music from Then and Now

By Steven Dawson

Noah Getz conducting

Photo by Catherine Gannon

Jazz music has been one of the most influenced and influential genres of music. Two ensembles at American University, the AU Jazz Orchestra and the AU Jazz Workshop, are committed to studying this music. Joshua Bayer, the director of the orchestra, and Noah Getz, the director of the workshop, discuss the ensembles, the work, and the upcoming concert, Then and Now.  


Tell us a little about the two ensembles that will be featured in the Then and Now concert.

Noah Getz: The ensemble that I coach is the Jazz Workshop, and the focus of that ensemble is the future of jazz music and the contemporary trends. The instrumentation is slightly different than in the orchestra. It’s a little more pared down compared to the size of a full band, but we also have a flexible instrumentation. For instance, this semester we have a DJ and string players working with our group. The goal is to see where jazz is headed and where jazz intersects with contemporary classical music and popular music, and to create hybrid musical connections.

Joshua Bayer: I direct the Jazz Orchestra, which focuses on traditional big band music. The cool thing is the jazz orchestra and the jazz workshop share students, but the two are different in that the workshop plays all styles of music and does a lot of student arrangements. We do a few student arrangements, too, but a big band is a more traditional setup. We play a lot of established jazz music.


How are you two bringing the history and invention of jazz into the classroom?

NG: In terms of the history of the music, a lot of what we focus on is improvisation, and that improvisation is in the bebop style, which came about in the 1940s. In terms of the instrumentation, it has a large combo vibe to it, but it is still geared toward the base jazz instrumentation. The play of the rhythm section really has roots in jazz history. Much of what we’re doing is purposefully a hybrid viewpoint. So we might focus on fusion, where rock and jazz meet, world music with a jazz influence, or an Afro-Cuban kind of influence. Since the orchestra is much more focused on the history and tradition of jazz music, it allows us in the workshop the flexibility to explore this other side of the music.

JB: And I try to mix it up. I do one semester on bebop and one semester on Latin influence. A gig is going to have all different styles, so I try to choose different styles and different eras to work on in the classroom. Through the different pieces, we can talk about style and influence, what came before and after, how to treat them rhythmically, and what tools to use to improvise in the different styles. Music changes over time, and we try to reflect not only learning about each genre, but also learning about each style in each genre. When you are doing that each semester, you are able to notice the differences in the music.


How do the students engage in learning the music?

JB: They practice…a lot. The orchestra is a performance class; therefore, the students’ output is performance. I would say that the amount of work these students put into the music is equivalent to any other academic class. The students can take 10 hours and write a paper, or take 10 hours and learn two charts. It’s hard work.

NG: The workshop, as the name implies, is very process-based. The students do all the arranging and selection, so there is a lot of research involved and then they look for pieces that might fit well into our concept. They are also using music notation software to write the parts for the different instruments. The reason we call it the workshop is they bring those arrangements in, we work through them, and we all give feedback on them. Then the arrangers will take their charts back, tweak those parts, and bring them back the next week and run through the process again. The improvisation is very much mathematical, based on form, harmony, rhythm, and time. We will have an experiential thing that happens in the rehearsal, but it only takes place as a result of their understanding of the elements of the music.


What can we expect to see and hear at the concert?

JB: We have a guest playing with us in the big band, Paul Carr. He’s a wonderful saxophone player and a great teacher who is quite well known. We will also be doing a piece by Raynel Frasier, an AU grad student. To be honest, the theme of the concert is “This is what we are learning in class.”

NG: I guess you could see it as the orchestra playing the “then” portion of the concert, playing the music in the traditional style. And the workshop is playing the “now” part. We are playing a seamless concert, which means there will be no time in between pieces for remarks. Instead, there will be DJ breaks in between the songs. We will have some video as well. The workshop ensemble will be playing a Radiohead medley; Esperanza Spalding, who stands in between the world of pop and jazz; a piece by Trombone Shorty; and a Brazilian pop song with jazz influence that will be sung in Portuguese. So there is a pretty broad spectrum in terms of what we’re doing.

The AU Jazz Orchestra and AU Jazz Workshop concert: Then and Now will be on Saturday, April 14, at 8 p.m. in the Abramson Family Recital Hall, Katzen Arts Center. Tickets are $10 for regular admission and $5 for AU community and seniors. For more information, visit the AU Arts website.