On Feb. 18, Cal Poly’s music department and their four distinct jazz bands will perform with the Cuesta College Jazz Ensemble at the Performing Arts Center Pavillion.
The jazz bands, who have been performing since 1998, have historically been a space for music collaboration in San Luis Obispo. Any student, regardless of major, can join via audition.
In both live performance and in the sentiments of Cal Poly musicians, the artform of jazz is alive and well.
“The improvisation factor of jazz is why I started loving music in the first place,” said Benjamin Geil, a first-year bassist in the jazz program “Getting into a room and jamming with friends, playing nothing that we [have] ever rehearsed before and making stuff up on the spot is the reason I love playing music and why I like playing jazz.”
If you have walked through the Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market within the last few months you might have come across The Butternotes, a recently-formed band of four Cal Poly upperclassmen.
Three of The Butternotes—fourth-year vocalist Mady Frei, third-year drummer Caedan Schlosser and third-year guitarist Jacob Cherdak—all currently play for separate combos and ensembles within the jazz program.
Frei sings soprano for the Vocal Jazz Ensemble, which is composed of eight vocalists and four rhythm section players that sing a collection of jazz-influenced pop and theater tunes.
“Vocal jazz is a whole different beast than anything I have done before musically,” said Frei. “It is not exactly a choral setting, but it is not like playing an instrument either. It is a happy medium. It is about working as a group to create a sound that blends together [and] meshes to create a mosaic of sound.”
The jazz department at Cal Poly also hosts an 18-piece big band called the Cal Poly Jazz Ensemble and two jazz combos: the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble and the Commercial Music Ensemble. Those combos have seven and nine people respectively for this year.
The director of jazz studies at Cal Poly is Dr. Arthur White, who also works as a saxophone player and composer outside of the university. “Stolen Moments” by Oliver Nelson, performed by the Vocal Jazz Ensemble at the concert, was arranged by White.
“You just audition for the jazz program, and Dr. White places you where he wants you. So I think the combos have a lot of upperclassmen whereas the big band have a lot of underclassmen to develop [their skills],and then when they get older, they go into the combos,” Geil said. Geil was placed into both the Cal Poly Jazz Ensemble and the Vocal Jazz Ensemble.
At the Cal Poly SLO Fall Jazz Concert on Nov. 12, each of the ensembles played four songs, except for the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, who played three jazz fusion and smooth jazz tunes. The Cal Poly Jazz Ensemble set list mainly consisted of big band jazz swing music, and the Commercial Music Ensemble focused on soul and pop music.
This was the first time any of these ensembles performed live for a Cal Poly audience since Feb. 29, 2020.
“It was a leap year, it screwed everything up,” White joked to the audience during an intermission between jazz ensembles at the concert.
In addition to giving the jazz musicians a platform to perform live for an audience, the concert was also meant to advertise the 2020 Cal Poly Jazz Ensemble album titled “Another Time, Another Place.” According to White, all CD sales and streaming profit from that album will be directed toward the jazz studies programs at Cal Poly.
This was the first jazz concert for many of the program’s musicians, including Tarzan Ma, a first-year civil engineering major and trumpet player for the Cal Poly Jazz Ensemble. For Ma, the jazz band is his extracurricular break away from his major classes.
“Engineering coursework in college is no joke, so I did not think I could do marching band again in college. I joined my high school’s jazz band my junior year, and—toward the end of my senior year—I realized [that] I could keep doing something related to band by doing the jazz band,” said Ma. “I was interested in doing jazz in college because the time commitments were way easier, and playing in a jazz band gave me the same amount of satisfaction, or even more than I had, in [marching] band.”
In addition to the concert on Feb. 18, the jazz program will participate in virtual competitions throughout the remainder of this academic year and will host a CD Release party of their own music on May 28 in the Spanos Theater.
Sam Kohn is a journalism major, content writer and DJ trainee for KCPR. Cindy Nguyen is a graphic communication major, designer and DJ trainee for KCPR.