Excitement fills the air inside the packed Mill Theater. The audience just finished listening to a performance by Late Night Blues, EC’s top vocal jazz ensemble. Now the lights dim again and those audience members who are lucky enough to have seats lean forward in anticipation as the EC Jazz Band takes center stage.
Loud cheers and clapping fill the room as Doug Beach, the director, steps in front of the band, and with a “1 ... 2 ... 3 ... 4,” the band begins to play.
Out of all the ensembles at EC, the Jazz Band is nationally renowned. The band played with Dee Dee Bridgewater at the 2001 Chicago Jazz Festival, a venue which few — if any — other collegiate ensembles have played at. The band has toured overseas several times at the request of the U.S. State Department, the latest trip being the summer of 2016. Just this fall, the band backed up Doc Severinsen, one of the jazz industry’s greatest performers, at his request.
As Bridgewater told DownBeat Magazine in a recent issue, “I’m quite impressed with [the Jazz Band]. It has become kind of a tradition at Elmhurst that their big band has to be at the ‘A game’ level.”
In other words, the Jazz Band is famous because they are ridiculously good.
At the end of “Jumpin at the Woodside,” the band’s rousing first number, Beach steps up to the microphone and greets the audience before introducing the next song.
“I just want to thank you for ignoring the Cubs [in game three of the World Series] and coming to hear us tonight,” he says, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
Beach then introduces the next song, “A Night in Tunisia,” a song with a very Egyptian flair. However, instead of remaining in front of the band and directing them throughout the piece as most directors do, he switches off between standing in front of the band and standing off to the side, letting the players take the spotlight.
That Beach is able to trust his players to perform like this is not only a tribute to their musical ability, but also indicates his ability to help the band reach this level of performance, a skill which led to his reception of the 2015 DownBeat Jazz Education Achievement Award.
When Beach began directing the band in 1978, the Jazz Band was just barely a band.
“When I came off [tours], I played as a fill-in for the Jazz Band because they didn’t have enough people to fill the band,” said Beach. “The whole Music Department was small. We had maybe 46 or 43 music majors compared to the 200 music majors we have now.”
In 1978, the Jazz Band rehearsed two times each week, gave one concert a semester and played at EC’s Jazz Fest. After 38 years of Beach’s guidance, the band rehearses three days a week and gives over 60 concerts a year, both on and off campus.
Beach’s dedication to the band is reflected in the students. Gabby Bandera, a sophomore saxophone player, is still playing in the concert — she has a solo in the third song of the set, a slow, smooth tune called “Wee Small Hours — despite having a cold.
Trevor Hill, a junior sax player in the band, noticed that this dedication really affects how the group plays together in the band.
“In the Jazz Band, we play things on another level,” said Hill. “When I play in Jazz Band, I’m always thinking, ‘Am I interacting with the other players and communicating with the other players?’”
Beach’s drive affects the players outside of a performance as well, for achieving the skill he demands of them requires a lot of practice time.
Michael McCarthy, a sophomore trumpet player said that he spends roughly 11-12 hours per week working on the songs for Jazz Band alone, not to mention the repertoire he must practice for other ensembles.
“You really need to know how to buckle down and have fun later,” he said.
However, while the practice schedule is tough, McCarthy does not mind because he has the opportunity to work with people, such as Beach, who are just as serious about music as he is.
“Being in the Jazz Band is the best thing about being here [at EC],” he said. “At my high school, maybe three percent of the kids were serious about music. At Elmhurst, everyone is serious. Doug is so passionate and watching that from him is inspiring.”
After “Walk, Don’t Run,” a swinging tune that at times is almost like a conversation between the band and the piano, the Jazz Band plays “Johnny’s Theme,” the song with which Severinsen began every episode of “The Tonight Show Star- ring Johnny Carson.” Then Beach introduces Jessie Brooks, the vocalist for the Jazz Band this year. Her vibrant voice echoes off the walls of the theater as she cranes, “I wish I knew why I’m so in love with you,” from “Save Your Love for Me.”
After half a dozen more songs, some slow and smooth, some upbeat and toe-tapping, the band closes the evening with a rendition of “Every Day I Have the Blues.” As the music dies out, the audience rises to their feet .
Although this concert is over, the Jazz Band cannot relax, for they are busy getting ready for Jazz Fest. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Jazz Festival, an event that was commemorated by a feature article in DownBeat Magazine. Jazz lovers will flock to EC in February to hear jazz played by nationally renowned musicians and bands such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and of course the EC Jazz Band.
To see a recording of the Jazz Band’s performance, click here