Jazz Express extracurricular group explores improvisation in music

Brian Olson

Sanjana Srivastava '14, Staff Writer

The Blake Upper School has a variety of arts clubs and organizations that meet outside of the normal class schedule. One group of advanced and ground breaking musicians is Jazz Express.

Jazz Express is the Upper School jazz band consisting of nine band students: Tom Commers ’12, Meghna Kaul ’14, and Aaron Sharper ’15 who play saxophone; Max Meyers ’12 and Kentucky Morrow ’14, who play trombone; Clare Flanagan ’14, who plays trumpet; Inder Majumdar ’12, who plays piano; and Jake Barczak ’12 and Kylan Duff ’13, who play percussion.

Brian Olson, the band director and Jazz Express leader says of the group’s origin: “I started Jazz Express in my second year teaching here in 1987, so it’s been around 25 years.

Bill Colburn was in the very first Jazz Express when he was a student here. He played drums.” Since it began, the jazz group has been an integral part of Blake arts as well as the music world beyond Blake.

Along with performing at every Upper School band concert, Olson says, “every year we end up playing for one or two parent organization meetings, sometimes we’ve played private things off campus.

One of the coolest things Jazz Express did was in 2000 Jazz Express was invited to go to Washington D.C. and we performed three or four times around D.C. as part of the bicentennial of the White House—a city-wide celebration.”

Jazz Express also goes far beyond performing. Third-year member Majumdar even says, “in all honesty, we don’t even consider performing a big priority.

“The majority of us really want to learn about jazz from an application basis. Anyone can read charts, or comment on how a piece of music sounds. But, when it comes down to being a musician playing in a group, one should be able to give a simple glance to another instrumentalist and signal a chord change, section change, solo, etc.

“It’s more about being able to communicate on the fly, adjust to the playing style of others, as well as account for and take advantage of spontaneous changes that weren’t previously considered with practicing or performing.”

First-year member Kaul agrees, saying that “It’s helped me learn—with improv, I’ve learned how to form solos and how to incorporate blues scales and stuff into my solos.”                                         Olson says about improvisation and learning music in Jazz Express, “It’s an outlet for kids who want to learn about jazz and try their hand at improvisation. It’s an opportunity to try to play styles of music that they wouldn’t play in band.

“It’s so often in Jazz Express that the students are exploring new things so they’re always—and this is typical of Blake students—asking good questions, which demand of me and all the teachers here. But it’s a good demand.

“It’s not all that uncommon that they ask questions that make me think and even have to go figure something out to help them.”

All three agree that Jazz Express has furthered them greatly as musicians.

“I’ve learned to listen to others,” says Majumdar of his personal experience.

“The idea of jazz was constructed from communal roots, more so from the idea that music played alone is worthless, whereas music played together strengthens the soul.

“Though that’s easy to consider, it used to be a hard thing for me to adjust to as a classically trained pianist. Why would I need the help of others when I have 88 keys and 10 fingers? Trust me, that can become boring pretty quickly.

“My piano teacher was the same way, actually. He was born in Cuba and played Rachmaninoff’s 3rd piano concerto with the Cuban National Symphony Orchestra at the age of 16, but was at a loss when he played Jazz for the first time.

“It’s a completely different game altogether, and allows for a multiplicity of opportunities rhythmically. Syncopation is king in jazz, and is valued more than technical skill alone. Utilizing syncopation in conjunction with others [creates] more abstract sounds.”

Jazz Express is an advanced and enjoyable challenge for strong band students who want to learn about jazz—and they always sound great.