Jazz Ensemble swings into concert series Oct. 9 at the Athens Theatre

Students in the Stetson University Jazz Ensemble will have their first fall semester “exam” on Oct. 9. That’s when the 19-piece big band will perform the music of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Louis Prima and others during the first of its four concerts at the Athens Theatre in downtown DeLand during the ensemble’s 2019-20 season.

“When you think about it, this is their exam,” says Patrick Hennessey, director of the jazz ensemble. “We are studying this music. We’re learning how to play this in the style that it’s supposed to be played. We’re playing all these different styles for educational purposes as much as anything, for the students’ long-term musical training.”

Patrick Hennessey

The program will “try to cover the entire gamut of the history of jazz within the context of a single concert,” says Hennessey, who played trombone in the backing bands of such music giants as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Liza Minnelli, The Temptations, the Four Tops, Natalie Cole, Johnny Mathis and others before joining the Stetson music faculty seven years ago.

“I want the students to understand the difference between how a big band swings now and in the early days of swing,” Hennessey says. “In the earlier days, coming out of a ragtime feel, it was more of a stilted, less swing feel. When you listen to Count Basie’s band in the ’50s ’60s, ’70s and into the early ‘80s, he established the standard for big band swing.

“I always tell students that when you get out into the field, when somebody hires you, you have to understand these differences. The bandleader is going to say ‘Hey, play it more like 1930s Fletcher Henderson.’ ”

Despite the educational agenda, Hennessey and crew haven’t forgotten the people who will fill the historic, 451-seat Athens Theatre, built in 1921 in the style of Italian Renaissance architecture.

The Stetson University Jazz Ensemble rehearses in Presser Hall on Sept. 25 for their upcoming concerts. Photos by Ciara Ocasio/Stetson

“You’re also programming for the audience,” Hennessey says. “I learned a long time ago that any audience, as long as you’re not pushing the boundaries too much, will love good music played well. So, my ultimate goal is always to program the best music not only for the audience but for the students, and a wide variety of music as well.”

The program features music from the 1920s to the ’80s, including Ted Snyder’s 1921 hit “The Sheik of Araby,” Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Portrait of Louis Armstrong,” Coltrane’s “Naima” and Prima’s “Sing, Sing, Sing (Part 1).” The concert will conclude with “John Brown’s Other Body,” which pianist-composer John Oddo adapted from a Civil War tune, recasting it as what Hennessey describes as “revival funk.”

Andres Gonzalez, a Columbian-born junior majoring in music education and one of two pianists in the Jazz Ensemble, embraces Hennessey’s mandate to know the music’s past.

“Jazz is completely American – truly, truly American,” Gonzalez says. “It is important to know the history and where our idiom came from.”

The Stetson University Jazz Ensemble rehearses Sept. 25 for their upcoming concerts.

As a future music educator, Gonzalez holds that to be especially true: Along with becoming a high school band director, he hopes to start a music studio in his native Columbia with his long-distance girlfriend, Megan Hupera, who currently lives in Wisconsin but will be moving to Florida soon.

“There’s kind of a lack of public music education in Columbia,” says Gonzalez, who grew up in the Port St. Lucie area after his family moved to the U.S. when he was 7. “So, we want to go down there and create a vehicle for kids in general to explore music.”

Gonzalez and Alejandro Imana, a junior majoring in guitar performance and the Jazz Ensemble’s guitarist, are aware that their peers – even some fellow students in the School of Music – may not have explored jazz very much.

Gonzalez wonders if classical music students “may think jazz is just improv, just a bunch of notes and it has no form — which is completely untrue of course. When you really listen to a well-versed jazz musician with a good vocabulary, you will hear all the forms and all the intricacies.”

Imana, a California native who also is studying classical music and sings as a member of the Stetson Concert Choir, makes a confession: “I would not have been listening to the music I listen to today five years ago. Absolutely not.”  

Imana, whose career goal is to teach privately as well as perform, laughs as he recalls driving with a friend while “Ornithology” by jazz sax legend Charlie Parker was playing on the car stereo: “My friend looked at me and said, ‘You really like this kind of stuff?’ ”

Acquiring an appreciation of jazz “is definitely a process,” he says. “If someone isn’t familiar with that side of music, it takes the right first exposure with more grounded stuff, and then you can just build and build on that knowledge.”

“I do my best to try to expose people to jazz,” Gonzalez says. “I do consider myself sort of an ambassador for my peers. I believe it’s an art form worth exploring for sure, for everybody.”

And why does the Jazz Ensemble perform at the Athens Theatre, its concert home for the past five years, instead of Lee Chapel in Elizabeth Hall, which is the venue for so many School of Music performances?

“Acoustically, Lee Chapel won’t hold the sound of this band,” Hennessey says. “The acoustics of a big band are very different than an orchestra or symphony or even the symphonic band. You might see 100 people on stage with those groups, and people have asked me, ‘You’re only 20 people — why don’t you play here?’

“Well, it’s because when that lead trumpet player is blowing strong and that drummer is popping, it can be absolutely chaotic. You have to play the music the way it is supposed to be played, even if the hall isn’t designed to hold it. You have to be true to the music, and we couldn’t do that in Lee Chapel.

“The Athens is a great venue for the audience, and the acoustics of the theater are perfect for the band. There’s a shimmer in the sound that is really nice as a musician – it makes you want to play.”

-Rick de Yampert

If You Go

The Stetson Jazz Ensemble will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday Oct. 9 at the Athens Theatre, 124 N. Florida Ave., DeLand. General admission tickets are $15 adults, $5 students, free with Stetson ID, and are available at the door or in advance online at stetson.edu/music-tickets.

A Jazz Pass is $50 and admits one person to all four Stetson Jazz Ensemble concerts during its 2019-20 season at the Athens Theatre. Special reserved seating is held for Jazz Pass holders until 7:15 p.m.

Additional performances by the Jazz Ensemble at the Athens will be Nov. 20, Feb. 26 and April 22.