By Julia Clausen
The quarterly UCI Jazz Orchestra concert on Wednesday, November 16 featured a selection from the full historical and cultural range of the jazz musical tradition, including an original composition by the Grammy-winning director of the band, Dr. Bobby Rodriguez. The evening came alive with laughter and the complex rhythms of big band jazz. However, not nearly enough students were there to experience it, as is often the case at UCI arts events.
Jazz, once innovative and rebellious, has now been largely discarded by the younger masses as an outdated fad for those older generations. The concert was indeed attended by several gray-haired patrons and families, but the musicians and student attendees were equally as enthusiastic.
So what does it take to bridge the divide?
According to second year Environmental Science major and member of the UCI Jazz Orchestra, Katie Michel, it was a simple matter of trying something new as an artist. After playing electric guitar for years, she wanted to get involved with a different style of music to challenge herself, and the UCI jazz department welcomed her with open arms.
“It’s not so much a matter of auditioning as it is being willing to show up and put in the work,” she said about the process of joining the group, “and the community is great!”
When speaking about the director, her eyes lit up: “Bobby [Rodriguez] has so much positive energy. He teaches us about the history and style of everything we play. It’s much more than just reading music.”
Rodriguez extended this educational experience to the audience as well. Before each piece, he would explain the motivation behind the song, the cultural context of the style, and the personality of each composer, some of whom he knew personally. Then the audience was able to hear and understand the music, beyond the series of unfamiliar rhythms and sounds, for the emotional work that it is.
Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” was all the more somber when the audience imagined its release at the start of World War II, and Benny Carter’s “Jackson County Jubilee” felt festive when they imagined themselves at an outdoor festival, watching couples swing dance to the beat. From 1940s Big Band to 1970s Latin beats, the UCI Jazz Orchestra took the audience on a journey through time.
Rodriguez even invited the audience to participate in the creation of the sound by singing short phrases or clapping along, making it more like an immersive experience than a stuffy concert.
And the positive energy could not be denied. Rodriguez cracked jokes with the audience, and each musician had the opportunity to express the full range of his artistry as they took turns performing dynamic solos.
The two alternating, and highly skilled, drummers even came forward to perform an experimental and competitive duet on a single drum kit. This was a particular audience favorite, and revealed the driving force behind jazz: the freedom to play and invent.
As Michel has learned since joining the group, jazz music “transcends its time” because it is always moving forward, always seeking to experiment, create and respond to current events.
So why should students care about jazz?
“Because it’s awesome!” Michel exclaimed. “But it’s definitely something you have to experience live.”
Despite much of UCI not giving much thought to the Arts department across the bridge, the music community is alive and thriving, always looking forward while building on the rich musical history of the past. They also defy the perception that classical music is some kind of exclusive club for cultured people. Quite the opposite.
“We’re always looking for more musicians,” said Michel.
If this concert, which brought in about 100 audience members, proves anything, it is the power of music to bring people together. There’s no doubt that jazz music and the UCI Jazz Orchestra will be around for many years to come.