By Ed Love
As the leader of the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra, I get to select music that will be played by the finest musicians in the Midwest, many of whom I consider my close friends. Playing music with people you like and trust is one of the most wonderful things in the world. As the NJO begins its 32nd season of making music, I realize that some of you, dear readers, may have never heard any of our performances. In order to try to encourage you to experience our artistry, I present the following:
The Nebraska Jazz Orchestra is a 17-piece band dedicated to preserving the tradition of American big band jazz, following in the footsteps of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and others. The NJO presents an annual series of concerts in Lincoln at the Embassy Suites hotel ballroom, plus other events in Lincoln and around Nebraska. It is operated by a volunteer board of directors and Arts Incorporated, a Lincoln-based arts-management organization. We have performed in England, Scotland, France, Germany and Switzerland. We have performed with some of the world’s best jazz artists, including Clark Terry, Marvin Stamm, Don Menza, Joe Locke, Victor Lewis, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Watrous, Karrin Allyson and Terell Stafford.
The band was started 32 years ago by John Tavlin and other local musicians, who played in jazz bands in high school and college but had no band to play in after graduation. It has changed its mission over the years from just offering a creative outlet for musicians to entertaining and educating the public, plus giving the best local musicians a chance to produce their art. It has also changed its name, having started out as the Neoclassic Jazz Orchestra. Over the years, we decided that Nebraska was easier to remember than Neoclassic, so we changed the name.
This ensemble and others like it have managed to stay in business because the music is exciting to hear and to perform. When we play older big band music, we can conjure up memories of the bands mentioned above. Big band music was America’s popular music from about 1930 to 1950, and many of our audience members remember hearing and dancing to those bands. Much of the music in our library, however, was written after 1950 and evolved from other sources. Caribbean and South American styles, bebop, rock, funk, symphonic orchestral music, and Indian music are some of the sounds that can be heard in today’s big band jazz.
Our musicians are expected not only to play but also to improvise in those styles. This keeps us constantly working to increase our skill level, which makes us feel alive. The endorphins we produce in our brains when we play together become very addictive, and we are compelled to keep playing and practicing. I believe that we project a lot of energy and joy in our shows because our audiences have been very appreciative over the years.
Most of our musicians have advanced degrees in music and many are music teachers. Some are in the Air Force band, one works for an insurance company, three work with computer technology and most of them are sort of crazy—in a good way. There’s always a lot of laughter at our rehearsals.
If you enjoy energetic music that will make you want to smile and dance, or poignant and introspective music that will make you want to think, come to our concerts. There is, however, no room for a dance floor at our concerts since we have been blessed with large audiences of late.
Things to listen for are: the interplay between the rhythm section (piano, bass, guitar and drum set) and the horns, the contrast between the full ensemble and the soloist, the interplay between the soloist and the rhythm section, the power of the band in full voice, and the subtlety of the band in more mellow moments, especially when the saxophonists pick up flutes and clarinets to make more gentle sounds. Sax players in a band like this are frequently asked by composers to switch to other woodwind instruments during the course of a song. The brass players hate this because then they have to play more softly. Trumpets and trombones require a great deal of strength to play well, and many brass players are males with a bit more testosterone than your average defensive lineman.
This season’s concerts include local guest soloists and internationally famous recording artists. Our October 9 concert features music by Eric Richards, a prolific composer and arranger now living in Fremont, and Joe Cartwright, pianist from Kansas City. The annual Christmas concert will spotlight Omaha vocalist Susie Thorne and our beloved jazz treatments of holiday melodies. On January 16, 2008, we showcase the Young Lions band, made up of local student musicians who are selected by audition, and Matt Niess, trombonist in the Army Blues jazz band, based in Washington, D.C. February 14 is our annual Valentine’s Day dance, held in the ballroom of the Cornhusker Hotel. April 20 brings world-renowned trumpeter Scott Wendholt to our stage, along with Jazz Ensemble 1 from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, directed by NJO saxophonist Dr. Paul Haar. Our final concert this season is on May 23 and will feature new arrangements of compositions by Russ Long, a fine pianist from Kansas City who passed away last year. The May concert will also present the winner of our annual Young Jazz Artist competition. A recent addition to our year of events is the Nebraska Jazz Festival, which will be March 14–15 and will welcome Bill Watrous, one of the true masters of jazz trombone, back to Lincoln. Mr. Watrous has played with the NJO twice before, and we are proud to present him to our audience again.
So, dear reader, if you have made it this far down the page, I again invite you to experience the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra sometime in the near future. Visit our Web site for more information: www.artsincorporated.org/njo