Tufts Jazz Orchestra features unique students in collaborative atmosphere

The Granoff Music Center is pictured on May 7, 2014. Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily Archives

Playing at Scullers Jazz Club on Wednesday, March 14, the Tufts Jazz Orchestra added another performance to its already impressive repertoire. Currently composed of 14 students ranging from first-years to seniors, the group blends experience and talent and has a history of musical achievement.

Led by Director Joel LaRue Smith since 1996, the Jazz Orchestra has toured throughout the world, including countries such as Cuba, Prague, Bulgaria, Portugal and Spain. Smith emphasized the talent that the group possesses, which was showcased at their performance at the world-famous Scullers.

“Everyone is really, really good,” Smith said. “I mean, there’s some major talent at Tufts … Just because kids aren’t majoring in music, doesn’t mean they’re not extremely gifted.”

Speaking about the students’ familiarity with jazz music, Smith emphasized that regardless of a student’s training in jazz, the Orchestra was a place to gain experience.

“We really embrace learning; that’s what we’re here for,” Smith said. “We’re on a journey, as opposed to, ‘You’ve gotta be the best or you can’t be in it.’ Maybe that’s the strength of it.”

First-year Nathaniel Berman, who plays trumpet for the group, discussed how he was able to get involved with the group despite not having much prior experience.

“This is my first semester,” Berman said. “I only just picked up the trumpet in the past two or two and a half years, so before this I hadn’t really played in a big ensemble.”

In addition to jazz, the group frequently branches out into other genres of music as well, and has recently been playing a lot of music by Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire.

“We don’t just do Jazz music, we do R&B and Soul and Latin music, and it’s joyous,” Smith said. “This world, right now it’s in such a tumultuous place on so many dimensions, but we contribute some rhythm and vibrancy … That’s our thing.”

Smith added that part of what makes their performances so enjoyable is the emotional reaction from their audiences.

“It astounds people: Some people cry, some people dance,” he said.

According to Berman, another enjoyable aspect of the Jazz Orchestra is being able to make music as a part of a group.

“When you get good, it just feels good, just like anything else that you make that you’re proud of,” Berman said. “It’s just really gratifying to practice and then have it all come together.”

Berman, like many of the students involved with the Jazz Orchestra, also plays music in a band outside of the group.

“[I play in] a trio with my twin brother [first-year Zac Berman] and another friend [first-year Sam Graber-Hahn] we have here,” Berman said. “We’ve just practiced as much as we can and have played a few gigs on campus. We play mostly Klezmer, which is fringe European/Balkan Jewish folk music.”

According to Berman, the genre of Klezmer came to Manhattan in the early 1900s with the arrival of Jewish immigrants, although it has a mixture of origins. 

Berman is working on practicing with his trio to get the opportunity to line up more performances.

“We practice once a week,” Berman said. “We’re trying to work up a pretty substantial set so we can play more. Just last weekend, we played for the Russian department … in Distler.”

Although performing on stage can be daunting for some people, Berman noted that as a part of the Jazz Orchestra, a lot of the pressure is mitigated due to the group dynamic.

“Being with so many other people on stage kind of takes away the pressure — we all get along and can laugh at ourselves,” he explained.

Senior Julia Okun, a vocalist with the Orchestra, echoed this sentiment.

“It’s a great group of people,” she said. “There are people of all different age ranges and backgrounds and experiences, but especially being able to travel in Spain with them last semester, we’ve all gotten to know each other really well, and we have a great musical dynamic.”

Okun has been singing since she was a child but said that singing with a big band is a new experience for her.

“I sing with a lot of different groups of people, but this is the only place where I can go and sing with a backing of 20, 25 instrumentalists, all of whom are either professional musicians or students who are professional quality, and it’s really amazing to be able to sing against such a forceful and talented sound,” she said.

Like Berman, Okun also is involved with groups outside the Jazz Orchestra. She is currently a member of the band “Smoking Babies,” alongside senior Max Hornung, senior Bobby Familiar, junior Zay Smolar, junior Bryan Cleveland, senior Jackson Fulk-Logon and Niticon Davis (LA ’17). She noted that they’ve been able to play at several different gigs this semester.

“We started off playing primarily house shows around the Tufts campus, but recently we’ve been playing at a number of small venues around Boston,” Okun said. “We’ve played a show in JP [Jamaica Plain], a few in Cambridge, we have one in Somerville coming up at the Thunder Road, and we also play at the Burren.”

Okun explained that “Smoking Babies” plays a mixture of covers and original music and described a collaborative group atmosphere.

“We all write a lot of our music … so people bring in different songs and we workshop them, and we also do covers as well,” Okun said. “It’s all totally sort of a collaborative effort to practice, get our songs down, find the shows, recruit people and promote ourselves on social media.”

Of course, besides practicing with their respective personal bands, both students also look forward to the Jazz Orchestra’s weekly rehearsals. Speaking to Smith’s talent, both emphasized how much of a difference he’s made with the group.

“Joel is incredibly passionate about jazz music, about our group, about teaching students,” Okun said. “Every day when we come in we know that we have to have our parts down and really be ready to give it our all. [His] expecting that high level from all the members of the group really makes us all grow as musicians.” 

Berman agreed.

“[Smith is] really good,” Berman said. “He definitely knows what he’s doing, he’s really good at what he does and keeping track of all the parts, and it’s apparent that he’s been doing this a while.”

In addition to sharing their music with different communities, the Jazz Orchestra is also able to educate people about the African-American contributions to jazz and to music in general. This is something that is important to Smith.

“Well, I’m African-American, and I love sharing the culture of the African diaspora and showing its contributions and its enrichment to the world,” he said. “That is so satisfying for me, because it’s like a world contribution, and I love sharing that and exposing it to students and to the community and abroad. I just think it’s so important that people remember the contributions of the diversity of America.”

Smith explained how jazz is a useful vehicle for capturing the many nuances of our culture.

“It’s socially conscious, it’s entertaining, it’s enlightening, it’s the full package, really, it’s fun, it’s serious, it’s all of it,” Smith said. “I don’t know, I probably sound overzealous but it’s because I am.”

The student musicians have certainly benefitted from being part of such an all-around experience, and both Berman and Okun have gained a deeper appreciation for music after performing with the Jazz Orchestra.

“[I like] the gratification that I get after practicing something for weeks on end and then being able to present it in front of an audience, and see all of their reactions, and kind of share the results of my work [with them],” Berman said.

Okun also expressed appreciation for what the group brings to the different students involved.

“It’s a really wonderful outlet to meet people and to be able to have a space to creatively collaborate with each other,” Okun said. “And ultimately, it’s also just fun.”

Smith elaborated a bit about the group’s plans for the next few months, along with the details for their next tour. The Jazz Orchestra’s next performance will be at Distler Hall on April 23 at 8 p.m., but looking even further into the future, Smith said that next year, the group is going to Rome and Florence. Most of the trips take place over spring break to accommodate student schedules.

Smith particularly emphasized the excitement of the group’s most recent performance at Scullers.

“It’s historical, it’s the first time we’ve gone to the premier Jazz Club in New England, which is Scullers,” Smith said. “[But] the best thing is that they’re going to play in front of people that have no connection to them, so that’s … a training and an education in and of itself … That’s what music and jazz really is, it’s touching people’s lives, taking chances, taking risks, you know, putting yourself out there in a very bold and vulnerable way.”


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