Virginia Commonwealth University’s Jazz Orchestra One I is comprised of 18 of the school’s best jazz musicians. Lead by Professor and Director of Jazz Studies, Antonio García, the ensemble boasts an incredible mixture of students, some of whom are not jazz majors at all. Yet, the dynamic is fearless and unified, as if the students had been playing together for much longer than a mere month and a half. I had the privilege of interviewing Professor García and a few of the orchestra members, in addition to sitting in on a rehearsal for the upcoming Fall Jazz Festival featuring multiple jazz ensembles on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016.
Professor Antonio García directs Virginia Commonwealth University’s Jazz Orchestra I
VCU’s jazz studies program provides its students with ample opportunities to fuel their careers as performers, educators and versatile musicians. Professor García said VCU Music promises a “school without walls” scenario, in which young musicians “have the opportunity to go out and play music in public and get paid for it, realizing that when they come back for their 9 a.m. class the next day that we’re not lying to them. That doesn’t exist in a lot of universities in the United States.”
Not only is the jazz studies program as a whole quite impressive, Jazz Orchestra I is, in García’s words, special to the university because a combination of the music and the students makes it so. He explains, “The musicians are taught two main skills; to sight read and to get better.”
Sight-reading, a scenario in which musicians have never viewed the music before their time to perform it, is important because it allows the students to play an unknown piece in a unified manner. Therefore, each musician in JO 1 will take away from it a necessary tool needed by all musicians to succeed in playing in an ensemble. Not only that, but the array of music choices enhances the students learning.
“We play a variety of music, anything from jazz to blues to Afro-Cuban to funk and beyond,” García said.
L to R: Chet Friarson and Jason Kincy
Although the repertoire is certainly notable, Saxophonist Chet Frierson, a junior in the jazz studies program, appreciates the unity of the Jazz Orchestra 1 musicians. “We learn about how trust is what gets you through. You’ve got to trust that the cats around you are doing what they’re supposed to do, so in return, you do everything in your power to make sure that you’re pulling your weight. You simply don’t get that kind of lesson from a lecture hall.”
Likewise, Jason Kincy, a junior Classical Performance major and saxophonist for JO1, agrees and commends the group’s dynamic: “I thought that coming in as a classical major would separate me from the group, but they’ve been incredibly kind to me–I already feel like I’ve been here much longer than a few weeks. To no surprise, it’s a fantastic group of musicians, and an even better group of people.”
L to R: David Roberts and Ben Kelly
In addition to being a close-knit group, the musicians of JO1 are incredibly talented. Some are prestigious scholarship winners, teach private lessons and play for performances in various out of school venues.
Ben Kelly, a junior double bassist, has experience playing different kinds of gigs in the Richmond area: “I play in musicals, at restaurant gigs, VCU events, background music, front-ground music and for a local church. I got it all, baby.”
Although the perks associated with being a member of such a group are an amazing opportunity, for many of the Jazz Orchestra I musicians, the chance to play the instrument that they love in a performance setting is immensely gratifying.
Guitarist David Roberts, a junior, describes what guitar means to him, saying: “Playing guitar gives me a sense of purpose and a way to express myself. I can definitely say that it has made me a more well-rounded person.”
For people like Nick Davidson, a senior Jazz Studies drummer, who has been playing drums “since he [I] could hold drumsticks,” notes that there is “nothing better than playing the music that you love with some of your closest friends.”
VCU’s Jazz Orchestra I is ensemble that is equally as worthwhile to play for as it is to experience as an audience member. The musicians’ and Professor García’s enthusiasm for their craft is unparalleled, and their repertoire far-reaching. It is undoubtedly an invaluable decision to experience their finesse and talent first hand. They are, in many ways, a diverse group who deserve to be recognized for their hard work and dedication. Be sure to check out their performance on Oct. 13, 2016 at 8 p.m. in VCU’s Sonia Vlahcevic Concert hall!
Photos taken by Emily Gerber