It's a rare occasion when Director Matt Belzer is not present to lead the JHU Jazz Ensemble in rehearsal. Last Thursday night was one of those occasions. Still, 14 members of the group filled half of the spacious Second Decade Society practice room in the Mattin Center that evening - trumpets, saxophones, clarinet, flute, trombone, drums, piano, bass, guitar - leading themselves, intent on improvement and having a laugh at every chance they got.
The band plays for about five minutes at a time - blaring brass and playful piano riffs guided by a cymbal-heavy beat and a rolling bass. Then, every once in awhile, the music stops, and the band listens to a suggestion from a member who has a problem-discussing instrumental techniques, weaknesses of the music and solos.
"The band is always self-motivated, and they have to be," says Belzer, now in his fourth year as the group's director. "I try to encourage that. Because of limited rehearsal, I don't have the opportunity to work on each individual part during rehearsal."
The Jazz Ensemble is made up of 21 undergraduate and graduate students from Homewood - meaning that none of them are music majors. Each year, dozens of students try out for the Ensemble and the Jazz Band, a younger, less experienced ensemble that Belzer also directs.
The group has been practicing all year and is beginning to see results - not in the way of trophies or medals but in an appreciation of their music and talent.
On Saturday, April 3, the group packed into school vans and headed up to the Villanova Jazz Festival. The only entry group comprised of all non-music majors, the band placed first and last in their unique division. The real news, however, was what the group saw, both in their score and in the audience's reaction to their music.
"[It was] announced that we were non-music majors, and we got another round of applause," said senior trombonist Nathaniel Jones.
Belzer, who made the announcement himself, sees the group's composition as an asset.
"They're not music majors, so they don't feel like they have something to prove," Belzer says. "The only reason they're there is for the pure love of music - they don't get any course credit for it."
At the Festival, each group was judged for a 20 minute performance, in addition to a sight-reading test, in which each member had one minute to read through unfamiliar music, discuss the music with the rest of the band, and then perform it.
"Our score was pretty comparable to what the music majors were doing, which was pretty encouraging," says junior drummer Greg Druck.
"It was great to get some recognition for what we've done and to be judged by people who don't hear us usually," says senior trumpeter Coleman Flanagan.
Although Belzer was admittedly proud of the group, he still doesn't place too much emphasis on competition. "To me, jazz music is an art, not a sport," he says. "The actual competitive part isn't as important as the experience." At any rate, the group's accomplishment is tantamount to an intramural soccer club beating the varsity team.
Belzer also adds that since there aren't many college jazz festivals, it was a great chance to hear what other college jazz groups were doing musically.
The members, whose experiences range from six to 13 years, cite a variety of reasons for why they're so dedicated to the group. Freshman pianist Mike Donovan is an aspiring jazz musician but also enjoys playing because it gets him away from his studies in a productive way. Freshman bassist Christian Recca is there because he used to be in a garage band and wants to keep his chops up. Guitarist Erik Hoversten, a second-year graduate student, wants to be a better guitarist and meet people he wouldn't otherwise meet. Sophomore saxophonist Paul Angelini motions to the window and adds that he just wants to "get away from everything that's out there."
Members of the group clearly enjoy what they do, and the friendships that they've formed have risen out of a love for jazz. Although they hang out only occasionally outside of rehearsal, several side bands have been formed among members, and the group collectively is all laughs during rehearsal.
"Getting to know each other better helps you play better as a group," explains senior trombonist David Sparks.
Although the band is proud of their achievement, they seem to relish the fact that they're unknowns in the college jazz world. "We're still the underdogs," claims senior saxophonist Erin Silverman. Still, the group hopes that Hopkins will give them a little more recognition - and the keys to the sound system in the rehearsal room and the piano in Shriver (both have impeded rehearsal many a time).
The spring concert for the Jazz Ensemble, which they're currently preparing for, will be on April 29, at 8:30 p.m. in Shriver Hall.
"There will be food afterwards," says Donovan, "in the vending machines."