Judging from the buttery trills and colorful solos, one would have guessed the challenges that the Wheaton Jazz Ensembles faced in preparing for their fall concert Oct. 17, 2014 at Barrows Auditorium. The diverse group of both conservatory and non-conservatory students took on the task of learning and mastering several complex musical pieces in only a month-and-a-half. The director of the Wheaton Jazz Ensemble, Katie Ernst, informed the audience that this was the earliest fall jazz concert she had ever done at Wheaton. If this pressure was not enough, this year’s fall concert fell in the middle of midterms week. At such an inopportune time, the ensembles ran the high risk of a limited audience, along with an exorbitant workload and instrumental practice for themselves. At 7:30 p.m., the dimmed space of Barrows initially filled up with elderly couples, families and a few students. But as the music began to play, the seats began to fill, as if the compelling and sirenic croons of the voices and instruments lured more weary students from their midterm studies. There were more than a few students who snuck into the rows with large textbooks and backpacks during the intermission and the rest of the concert. On stage, as the students played, they came alive with their music. The Green Mill Combo — named after the iconic Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, well known for its jazz and poetry in the ’20s — started the night with a classic moody jazz piece called “Summertime” by George Gershwin. During this piece, the audience began to clap for each student’s solo part, a practice the audience maintained for the rest of the evening. The Jazz Showcase Combo, which followed The Green Mill Combo, transfixed the entire audience with a haunting performance of “Beautiful Love,” sung by senior Amanda Azkoul. After the intermission, the larger 18-member Wheaton College Jazz Ensemble played a diverse range of cool and hot jazz pieces that filled the auditorium with a robust, throbbing energy. The students on stage played passionately with brows furrowed and took pleasure in listening to their fellow bandmates’ solos. Ernst conducted the Jazz Ensemble with animated character, guiding the audience’s attention to the other Wheaton College faculty and students. Upon introducing the last piece, “April in Paris,” she asked the audience if they knew what they were to say at the end. While some sat silently confused, the auditorium broke into laughter when a gruff older man shouted back the answer. When “April in Paris” drew to a close, Ernst signaled to the audience, who yelled back, “One more time!” The Jazz Ensemble exploded again in pleased acquiescence, not once but twice, in response to the audience’s demand. The audience showed their gratitude with a standing ovation. Junior trombone player Tim Henry said, “It was really cool because we were constantly reminded that jazz isn’t just the notes you play; it’s the emotion that you feel and convey through the notes.”
After the show, Ernst shed some more light on how the students managed to learn and prepare in such a short amount of time. She praised the returning students who helped the new members to learn the swing of things and the style of the group. “It was almost a good motivator,” she said, “to make us become a band a lot earlier.” Perhaps it was the fact the students in the ensembles seemed to be so engrossed in enjoying themselves that made their performance engaging for the audience. Since the fall concert was scheduled earlier than normal, the jazz ensembles are now left with plenty of time to prepare for the spring concert. If the fall concert is any indication, the spring jazz concert should hold some promise of reward for surviving the bitter Wheaton winter.