Wesleyan jazz musicians have been tooting their own horns to the local community.
During spring semester, the 20-member band has performed six times at public elementary, middle and high schools in Middletown. They work under the direction of vibraphonist-composer Jay Hoggard, adjunct associate professor of music.
“It’s good for the Wesleyan students to get out of their little shell of the universe according to Momma Wesleyan, go a few blocks away and play for young people who may or may not have been exposed to this type of music before,” Hoggard says. “We’re representing jazz and we’re representing Wesleyan.”
The orchestra’s 2009 repertoire consists of music by Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Thad Jones, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins and Jelly Roll Morton. The group spends the fall semester listening and learning music, and performs select pieces at the schools during the spring semester.
The Wesleyan students dress to impress. On stage, they don black pants, shirts and a Cardinal red vest.
The concerts themselves lasted for about 50 minutes. If time allowed, Hoggard also introduced the Wesleyan musicians and their instruments, which ranged from clarinet to trumpet to piano.
“We sound, and we look, impressive,” Hoggard says. “The audience, especially the elementary-age kids, look at the Wesleyan students as professional artists.”
Baritone saxophonist Bob Gambo ’10 played for a large jazz orchestra in high school and joined the Wesleyan orchestra to continue his musical education, and gain a deeper understanding of jazz music.
“Playing at local schools is a great experience; we learn a lot about ourselves as musicians, the music we play and the community at large,” Gamo says. “Jay emphasized the community-building nature of these concerts, and refers to us as ‘ambassadors’ of jazz music to the children and school faculty that we entertain. The response has been positive and encouraging from the students we perform for.”
Elizabeth Gauvey-Kern ’11, a music and government double major, sings two songs, “It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)” a famous anthem of jazz written by Duke Ellington, and Frank Foster’s arrangement of “In a mellow tone,” another Ellington tune. She also sings in the band, rather than in front of the band, for Charles Mingus’s “Moanin.”
“It’s really an honor for me how Jay makes me part of the band,” Gauvey-Kern says. “As a singer, it is often typical to be the final add-on, the last piece, not really included in the day to day rehearsal process. Jay doesn’t let that happen. I haul equipment and take part in rehearsals. He makes sure I’m one of the band.”
The students travel to the schools in their own vehicles, or a Wesleyan passenger van. They leave campus around 12:20 p.m. and return by 2:30 p.m. But it’s the getting there – and getting back – that teaches the Wesleyan students the most about life as a musician. Hoggard says the prep and take-down account for more than 50 percent of the time at the schools.
“It can become a real madhouse when you have 20 students packing and loading up instruments and equipment, setting them up, getting into place, hurrying up to get ready and finally playing for about an hour,” Hoggard says. “But, that’s what being a musician is. No one cares if you had to break your back carrying a piano up the steps. The audience just wants to hear the music.”
The young musicians are given a sample of the touring life in a way that few of them have ever experienced.
“Jay emphasized these practical aspects of the concerts just as much as the musical aspects, teaching us lessons of responsibility and leadership at the same time,” Gambo explains. “We became used to moving, unpacking and setting our equipment up quickly so as to maximize our time playing for the students.”
This is Hoggard’s 17th year directing the Wesleyan Jazz Orchestra at local schools. He started the program in 1992, when his own children were enrolled in the Middletown Public School system. He’s maintained the connection with the schools ever since.
In Spring 2009, Hoggard directed the Jazz Orchestra at, Keigwin Middle School, Wesley Elementary School, Moody School, Middletown High School and Woodrow Wilson Middle School.
“As a band-leader and professor, Jay cultivates the responsibility, independence and humility that are essential components to life at and beyond Wesleyan,” Gambo says. “Few other professors have the ability to do this so effectively.”
Photos of the orchestra below by Bill Burkhart.