The Savannah Jazz Festival is always a testament to the eternal vibrancy of jazz music. Anyone who wrings their hands over the future of jazz only needs to look at the talented young musicians that continue to keep jazz tradition alive, as well as push the genre forward.
Georgia Southern and Savannah State universities boast exceptional jazz ensembles that will be showcased at this year’s festival.
The music department of Georgia Southern University has a 19-piece big jazz band featuring five trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, and a five-piece rhythm section.
“It’s an incredibly popular ensemble and I believe I have the best students we have to offer in the department,” says Rick Mason, director of the GSU Jazz Ensemble.
“It’s a lot of fun,” continues Mason. “We work hard at it. I tell the band, I got into this business because music is fun. But the only way it’s going to be fun is if it’s done well, so we’re going to work really hard to make it good and once we get it to where it sounds pretty good, then we’ll have fun.”
The band plays mostly modern music and only rarely delves into the old-style dance tunes. “The literature we play is exactly what the professionals play,” says Mason. “We don’t use watered down arrangements. For example, we’re doing a Buddy Rich tune and we’re using exactly the same arrangement that his band used.”
The Rich tune they are performing at the festival is an arrangement of the Thelonious Monk song “Straight, No Chaser.” The program also includes “Count Bubba’s Revenge” by Gordon Goodwin, “Whisper Not” by Quincy Jones, “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” by Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” and two pieces by Alan Baylock, former director of the Air Force’s band The Airmen of Note.
Mason’s students often have a stake in what they perform and even present original compositions. “My philosophy is ‘It’s your band,'” says Mason. “’You’re the ones facing the audience. They’re looking at you ... I’ll start and stop you, but in between, it’s all you.’”
This is the third time GSU has been invited to participate in the festival. Their first appearance was an eye-opener for many in the audience. “It sort of woke up some folks from Savannah that didn’t know we had music in Statesboro,” says Mason.
Marques Graham is the director of bands at Savannah State University. The university is known mostly for its marching band and historically only had small jazz combos in its music department, but an 18-piece big band was put together two years ago.
Unlike the GSU Jazz Ensemble, the Savannah State Jazz Ensemble focuses on standards. Their debut at the Savannah Jazz Festival will have a Duke Ellington theme.
The band doesn’t usually perform this soon in the school year, but they are making an exception for the festival.
“Considering the magnitude of this festival, usually the band doesn’t perform until the spring semester, but because we were offered an opportunity to have the band perform on this platform we decided to go ahead and make some provisions to have the band perform this semester,” says Graham.
“There are some challenges with that considering it’s marching band season and marching band is so time-consuming. But we felt it was very important at this point to display what the music department has to offer, that we have more than just a marching band. We want the community and the stakeholders to know that we have a comprehensive band program, that we have a thriving jazz program, as well as a thriving concert band program.”
IF YOU GO
What: Savannah Jazz Festival presents Savannah State and Georgia Southern jazz ensembles
When: Sept. 23; SSU at 4:15 p.m. and GSU at 5 p.m.
Where: The Mansion on Forsyth Park, 700 Drayton St.
Cost: Free and open to the public