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College jazz band swings into action

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SOUND INVESTMENT JAZZ Ensemble, a revival of a 1930s big band at Middlebury College, runs through a rehearsal in the Center for the Arts last week. The college has a history of big bands dating back to the swing era, but Sound Investment is the first jazz band to be officially credited by the music department in many years.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell


November 26, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — You can’t find a more purely American tradition than jazz music, Derek Long believes. The Middlebury College senior first fell in love with the genre in high school, playing tenor saxophone in a jazz band.

“With jazz there’s this really interesting dynamic,” he said. “On the one hand, you have to work together as a group. There’s a sense of community, of sharing a piece of art. On the other hand, there’s this opportunity for the individual to shine with the improvisation of a solo.

“That sense of standing up on your own two feet and dealing with whatever comes your way, it’s a uniquely American experience,” Long said. 

But jazz has kind of fallen off the map in recent years, Long said. That’s why his band, Sound Investment Jazz Ensemble, is trying to get it off the ground again at the college.

Sound Investment will have its official public debut on Friday, Nov. 30, at 8 p.m. in the Concert Hall at the Center for the Arts. The 17-piece band will present a kind of “jazz odyssey,” Long said, playing classics from Glenn Miller and Count Basie as well as more contemporary pieces,

When Long came to Middlebury in 2004, he was shocked to find there was no official jazz band sponsored by the music department; just a student-run organization known simply as Jazz Band.

He joined the student-run group, which he said was actually quite good. Trouble was, most of its members were seniors.

“After that year, a lot of the members graduated, and the band was left basically in tatters,” he said.

Long took on the position of director and kept the band going for a little while. But last year, he and another student, bass player Tristan Axelrod, started lobbying the music department to get some official support and a faculty member as director.

As a student organization, the band was considered an extra-curricular activity. Music majors couldn’t get credit for participating, like they could for playing in the college orchestra. And when it came to securing rehearsal space, the jazz band was always last in line.

“We felt like we wanted the school to recognize jazz as an art form on the level of western music for an orchestra,” Long said. “(Jazz) is a uniquely original American art form. We were pushing for more awareness.”

Somehow, it worked. Last year, the music department offered to pay for Dick Forman, a jazz pianist and affiliate artist with the college, to serve as official director and started giving credit to majors who participated.

The band also took the name Sound Investment, continuing a tradition of swing music at the college that began in the 1930s.

Forman offered a history of swing music and how it played in the creation of the college band.

“Swing actually reared its head in the ’30s,” he said. “It grew mostly out of music that began in New Orleans as an improvised form.” What showed up in the ’30s were big bands with upwards of 17 musicians, playing more codified music, but retaining the tradition of improvisation with soloists.

Records in the college alumni department show that the first swing band was formed around 1932. During World War II, the membership shifted. At that point, the band was called the Navy Panthers because all the musicians were men, and they were all in the U.S. Navy.

“The Navy actually sent people here for war-related training, but for general education, as well,” Forman said.

For about 20 years after the war the band had a checkered history.

“In some ways, it paralleled big bands nationally,” Forman said. “They just weren’t as popular. They turned into jazz-focused groups.”

The group officially reformed in the early-’70s, incorporating student musicians and town musicians, and adopted the name Sound Investment. Over the next few decades, the band came and went as student interest waxed and waned.

But with official backing from the college administration, Forman and the members of the current iteration of Sound Investment are confident the band will remain strong even after its founding members graduate at the end of this year.

Up until Friday’s concert, they have been performing primarily at dances sponsored by the college Lindy Hop swing dance club. The performances have been popular — with upwards of 150 people attending — but Sound Investment wanted to try something new.

“We reached a point where we just felt the next step needed to be taken,” Forman said. “We needed to work in a more formal setting, and there were some tunes I wanted to work at, which really weren’t dance music.”

In addition to the big band classics, Forman has introduced the band to contemporary jazz pieces, which he says have “an unusual sound, if not an unsettling sound,” and are a great challenge for the musicians.

“Really that’s the only way that jazz is going to stay alive in the long haul, if we spread awareness of the contemporary stuff,” Long said.

Still, it doesn’t get much better than playing music for a dancing audience.

“When we’re playing and there are people right there in front of you, dancing to it, you can tell when they’re loving it, and when they’re not into it.

“That’s also so American,” he said. “It doesn’t take itself too seriously."

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