VCU Jazz Festival shines spotlight on student and faculty talent

A VCUarts jazz ensemble performs a song at the Oct. 7 Jazz Festival at the Singleton Center. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Mackenzie Meleski, Contributing Writer

The VCU jazz department made a return to the stage on Thursday as students and faculty hosted the first jazz orchestra concert in front of a live audience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The event took place at the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall at the W.E. Singleton Center for the Performing Arts. Three jazz orchestras performed at the show with the first two composed of VCU students. The first orchestra that performed was Jazz Orchestra II and it consisted primarily of upperclassmen jazz students. The second group, Jazz Orchestra I, consisted of underclassmen students and non-music majors. The faculty band then closed out the performance.

The concert was free and open to the public, with many students’ friends and family in attendance. Among those present was Madysen Prater, a VCU freshman whose friend, Nick Dancey, was a part of Jazz Orchestra I.

“I haven’t been able to see any live orchestra performances since high school,” Prater said. “It’s really cool to experience again.”

The students and faculty practiced throughout the fall semester for the performance. According to professor Taylor Barnett, who teaches jazz improvisation and jazz history, the majority of the time spent in class goes towards preparing for this performance. 

“My favorite part of teaching music is seeing everything come together on stage,” Barnett said.

The Jazz Orchestra II played four songs and was directed by professor Toby Whitaker. Following a short intermission, the Jazz Orchestra I played four more songs, including “The Queen Bee” and “Ya Gotta Try” by Sammy Nestico. They were directed by Antonio García, director of jazz studies at VCU. 

The VCU jazz department faculty closed out the night with a total of seven songs. Among those in the faculty band were García on trombone and Barnett on trumpet.

For students and faculty this was the first time they had performed in front of a live audience since February 2020, and for many underclassmen this was their first time performing in front of a live audience at all. The concerts that had taken place during the pandemic were livestreamed through the VCUarts website.

Musicians at the performance wore masks at all times, taking them off only when they were about to play their set. 

“The audience is equally as important as the performers themselves,” Whitaker said. “The students were missing out on a big part of the experience of performing.”

The jazz department will be hosting more performances in November 2021, and all future concerts will be livestreamed as well as performed in front of a live audience. Jazz Orchestra I will be performing on Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. and Jazz Orchestra II will be performing on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m.; both performances will be held at the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall.

For Barnett, the return to live, in-person concerts is a milestone for the music school.

“This is really an affirmation for all the hard work and perseverance we’ve done to get here,” Barnett said. “We’ve worked so hard for the past two years to keep music alive.”

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