Jazz ensemble wins intercollegiate contest
Just try not to move your shoulders when you hear them play: it’s impossible. When Jazz Ensemble I gathered on the back steps of the Fine Arts Center for a photo, their improv grooves wafted over the Campus Pond; even the geese were bopping.
No surprise, then, certainly not to the birds, that the ensemble took first prize at the 2009 Villanova Jazz Festival.
The competition among a half-dozen top collegiate ensembles was a first-time experience for the group. Professor Jeffrey Holmes organized the trip and directed the musicians throughout. “These musicians are at a caliber that warrants their participation at this level,” he says.
“Holmes is always seeking perfection,” says Mat Schumer ’10 tenor sax, of the expert guidance that helped them take top honors. The Massachusetts Association of Jazz Education recently recognized Holmes with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
Even if they hadn’t won, the learning experience alone was worth the trip. “The festival provided us the opportunity to see other bands, to study how they perform, and to hear a variety of music,” says Schumer. The ensemble deftly moves through a wide variety of music, favoring contemporary big band repertoire, but also performing classic jazz of the 1920s and ’30s. The set list for the festival: “Still Crazy After All These Years” by Paul Simon, “Isotope” by Joe Henderson and arranged by Chris Merz ‘91G, and “Time Check” by Don Menza.
For the students, the trip provided a rare chance to see and learn from their mentor in a different setting. “I came to UMass to study with professor Holmes,” says trumpet player and arranger Alex Lee-Clark ’11. Holmes, as coordinator of the Jazz and African-American Music Studies program, is the keeper of the flame for jazz at UMass Amherst. In addition to his own successful career, Holmes has taught here for 29 years; during that time, students in the program have earned 35 DownBeat awards and made many other award-winning festival appearances.
In addition to winning top honors for big band, Jazz Ensemble I also received awards for best saxophone section, best rhythm section, and best soloist—trombonist Brian Thomas ’10G. The previous night, two of the department’s jazz combo groups also won first and second place awards in addition to best soloist honors going to Mat Schumer.
“Seeing our students work hard and be recognized for their achievements makes me very proud,” says Holmes.
-Kathryn Misata ‘09