Big band music was a hybrid, and this was its greatest asset. Though it relied on “arrangements,” its structure is a descendant of early improvisational jazz and blues. At the same time, professional musicians and scholars of music like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin were its outlet.
No disrespect to the pioneers on the front porch stoops. They were, in some sense, the truest jazz musicians: simple, spontaneous, uncontrived, and rich in soul. Yet, more arrangement and larger ensembles eventually led to the “big band” phenomenon and jazz’s expansion from the clubs out into America via radio. It was the next step in jazz’s evolution.
IVC’s Jazz Ensemble’s performance on Oct. 14, called “Early Jazz Classics and Beyond,” revisited some of jazz’s ground-breaking early hits, not only to appreciate the pieces themselves, but to shed some light on where they led the genre.
Thankfully, said band director Ed Peffer, this was the IVC Jazz ensemble’s last performance in the Student Services Center Lobby. I’ll be glad not to have the “Bursar’s Office” and the “Refunds Department” signs flank IVC’s performing arts venue.
The concert began with IVC’s Saxophone Quartet, headed by Peffer on soprano and rounded out by Dennis Rudolph on alto, Tom Kipp on tenor, and Paul Baker on baritone. Some great, dissonant chords at the end of “Have You Met Miss Jones” and all out beautiful take on “Autumn in New York” were the opener’s finest moments.
Yet, I enjoyed the quartet most when they happened to all be playing the same lines as they might as part of a full band. This was the advantage of the quartet setting: giving me the opportunity to appreciate the differences in tone color between the four voices. Having the saxophones mimic the parts of a real band, however, most often proved less than totally satisfying.
What was satisfying, however, was swinging opener: WC Handy’s “St Louis Blues March.” This piece and the evening’s closer, “Bill Bailey,” provided the foundation to the evening’s early jazz theme. Even when the band ventured out of early jazz, it wasn’t heart miss jazz’s roots in “On Green Dolphin Street,” arguably the evening’s best “later” standard. Still, the band sounded most together playing swing and Dixieland jazz; the band members themselves seemed to enjoy it the most as well.
This is what I enjoyed most about this performance: the palpable delight in the act of performing itself that is so important to this sort of jazz. Arrangement is key to these pieces, but playing and having fun with the music, even if there happens to be a mistake or two, is what really makes it sing.
In spite of the drab quarters, the venue’s small size and the huge sound of the band, at moments, provided a taste of what it might have been like to be crammed into some uncomfortable, smoked-filled club to revel in this raucous music. Maybe before they tear the building down, they consider saving the sign for the new arts venue: Tonight, jazz at the Refunds Department.