The Camel: VCU Jazz’s new home away from home

Lucas Fritz is stirring up activity off campus with the VCU Jazz at The Camel series, which starts tomorrow. Let’s say if Making Things Happen 101 were a class, Lucas would get an A.

VCU Jazz Studies major and trumpeter Lucas Fritz is stirring up activity off campus. Fritz is the curator of the VCU Jazz at The Camel series, which begins tomorrow evening and will take place on the third Wednesday of every month between now and May 2010 at The Camel. His goal is to allow VCU and student-run ensembles to perform full sets of music in an environment that is conducive — and realistic — for the music.

At VCU, playing in combos and small ensembles isn’t only a necessary skill to have, it’s a required part of the curriculum for jazz studies majors. In addition to the school’s two Jazz Orchestras, there are six Small Jazz Ensembles (SJEs), each directed by a full-time or adjunct faculty and that rotate members every semester based on auditions. Near the end of the semester, five of the ensembles perform a concert to showcase the pieces that they have created throughout the semester, whether they are arrangements of jazz standards or original compositions by the students or directors.

Being in an ensemble presents students with some challenges, like how to program a fifteen-minute performance — the maximum that each group is allotted — to represent the best of the ensemble’s work. While a semester together produces much more music deserving of performance than a quarter of an hour allows, the students have to select no more than three — and sometimes only two, or one — pieces of music to present.

Another challenge is how to make the music come alive in a concert hall environment. Trumpeter Taylor Barnett has written about dialogic music, in which musicians improvise and affect each other and the mood and reactions of the audience can also influence the players,

The concert hall stage is, quite simply, not an ideal place for music like that to be presented. How much communication can take place when the band members are spread out on a large stage and when the audience is removed from the performance both physically and through standard concert hall etiquette?

Of course, there are advantages of performing in this type of venue, he notes, like playing to the most attentive of audiences. And it’s up to the musicians to decide if what they’re creating is even open to influence from the audience. But Lucas likes to think that it applies to all jazz. “It’s more of a formal concert,” he says about the SJE concert, “whereas today jazz isn’t as formal as it’s made out to be in the collegiate setting.”

Student bassist Jonathan Wheelock points out another obstacle for members of SJEs: being faced with instrumentations that can be somewhat unusual. Ensembles, which are assembled and distributed at the beginning of every semester by Director or Jazz Studies Antonio Garcia, may include interesting features like several horns and two guitarists, or no bassist. One SJE nonet consists of tenor saxophone, trumpet, two guitars, two pianos, bass, vibraphone, and drums. (The unique characteristic of the ensembles is usually in the rhythm section) Arranging music for unorthodox instrumentations can be a valuable experience for the students, who are all required to contribute at least one arrangement to the group each semester.

Jonathan is looking forward to the freedom that the series will bring. Along with having freedom to choose his band, he adds, “We’re not under anyone’s direction, so how are we going to make this interesting?” While he, and any of the other musicians, could have the same freedom only by starting a band outside of the SJE confines and booking it themselves at a club, there’s an added level of motivation to form a group when a playing opportunity like this arises.

And like anyone who creates playing opportunities for other musicians, Lucas is to be heralded for not only doing so, but also managing to fit his own projects in here and there. His SJE, directed by Bob Hallahan, performs tomorrow night, and his group The Compass Rose Orchestra performs on the December event’s bill.

Third year jazz studies major and trumpeter Ben Heemstra is excited about the possibilities of the series. “Jazz is a community music, and it has to be connected to the community,” he says. “I think this is a really exciting step forward to help connect VCU to what’s going on in Richmond.”

Ben and some other students in the program share the wish that students can get SJE credit for their independent and already existing ensembles, ultimately freeing them from odd instrumentations and lackluster rehearsals that can be the result of a contrived arrangement of players.

This could be a cool idea that could lead to more groups that actually sustain a life past one semester, but are these student grievances against the current SJEs not the catalysts for them to go start their own groups (or series of concerts), and isn’t that the ultimate goal? Calling the SJEs unsung heroes may be a stretch, but many students fail to see the effect that the ensembles have on their playing habits.

So it’s a great thing that Small Jazz Ensembles, in their not-so-small and oddly arranged glory, and the two Jazz Orchestras will be on various programs in the VCU Jazz at The Camel series; they’ll be out of their element. And Lucas, whether in the wings or on stage, will be gaining valuable insight into being a concert presenter. Since creating the opportunity for the series to happen was the big step, let’s say if Making Things Happen 101 were a class, Lucas would get an A.

Check out VCU Jazz at The Camel every third Wednesday between now and May 2010, sets at 9pm and 10:30, all ages, free. Tomorrow evening, the Bob Hallahan SJE performs first, followed by the Karl Morse Trio. View event details. December: The CMP Trio (Chris Harrison, Paul Willson, Marcus Tenney), The Compass Rose Orchestra. January: Connor Thompson/Jon Wheelock/Kevin Johnson, Dean Christesen/Karl Morse/Andrew Randazzo. February: VCU Jazz Orchestra II, Phunk Boys of Richmond. March: TBA. April: Jazz Orchestra II, Jazz Orchestra I. May: TBA.

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Dean Christesen

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