April 23, 2020
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Maybe it was the blues and funk spilling out of every bar and restaurant that they passed on Frenchmen Street. Maybe it was the raucous sidewalk band that they stopped to watch on Royal Street, a pair of trombones trading solos and five trumpets screaming at the top of their range.
Maybe it was the grilled shrimp and boiled crawfish, the smoky gumbo and spicy étouffée. Or maybe it was “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” the Lil Hardin/Louis Armstrong classic and the jazz ensemble’s concert closer. “Make it more boastful,” advised Ashlin Parker of the Trumpet Mafia and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. When he sat in with them at their next performance, he lifted his horn and showed them what he meant.
Whatever it was that grabbed them, the Kenyon College Jazz Ensemble avidly grabbed back during four days of spring break in New Orleans. “It was incredible to hear so many musicians in so many idioms,” said Harrison Montgomery ’16 of Elkton, Maryland, an English and music double major and the group’s bass player. “Jazz is always blending genres, revitalizing its history, over and over. We saw that first-hand.”
The 18-member band was participating in the March 9-14 Crescent City Jazz Festival, which brought in groups from colleges and high schools. At their hotel, a short walk from the French Quarter, they performed for and got critiques from two judges — Parker, the trumpet player, and saxophonist Tony Dagradi of the cutting-edge quintet Astral Project. At a second performance, on a Mississippi steamboat landing, each professional joined them for a tune while passers-by stopped to listen.
“I like to take students to New Orleans because of its obvious connection to the origins of jazz,” said Professor of Music Ted Buehrer ’91, who has directed the ensemble since 2007 and led a previous trip there in 2012. “But traveling in general is good because it puts students in professional situations, where they have to play the same show multiple times, in different venues, and perform at a high level.”
The students had plenty of time to explore. “It seemed like there were three street performances per block,” said Carolyn Ten Eyck ’18 of Framingham, Massachusetts, the ensemble’s lead trombonist. An English major and music minor, Ten Eyck especially appreciated a concert at Preservation Hall, where elderly masters of traditional New Orleans jazz keep that genre alive. “It’s always cool to hear a band that’s clearly the best at what it does.”
One unexpected treat was an evening at the elegant French Quarter home of Bob Heaps ’73 and his wife, Jane Cooper. The couple had planned a party and invited the whole group over when they heard through the alumni network that the jazz ensemble would be in the Big Easy. There, pianists Jeremy Stern ’19 of Litchfield, Connecticut, and Weston Carpenter ’19 of Lafayette, California, got to play a restored 110-year-old Steinway that, they were told, had been played by John Lennon and Elton John.
Buehrer, who also teaches courses in music theory, jazz history, arranging, composition, and music technology, chooses a repertoire showcasing diverse styles from throughout jazz history and offering ample opportunity to improvise. Charts in the New Orleans set ranged from the Billy Strayhorn ballad “After All” (1941) to Maria Schneider’s jaggedly challenging “Wyrgly” (1994).
The students build their musical chops outside the ensemble, too. Jazz ensemble members have been regulars in student bands including Motown, Hot Club de Gambier, French Club and Park Strangers. Some sing with a cappella groups or the Chamber Singers. Many take private lessons.
“It’s great playing with so many strong musicians,” said Peter Thomson ’18 of Cincinnati, a guitarist who has been “razor-focused on jazz” since middle school. Thomson has been spending a lot of time in the practice room lately, working on the driving 7/4 time signature of “Whiplash,” slated for the ensemble’s spring concert.
As for the New Orleans trip, he said: “It’s a dream to play there.”