U of S ensemble talks jazz, mid-swing

By in Culture
Director Dean McNeill (centre) with the 2017-18 U of S Jazz Ensemble.

Jazz music is a reflection of life itself. It is raw, chaotic, beautiful and often improvised. Jazz music has produced some of the best musicians — including Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, to name a few.

What some students may not know is that the University of Saskatchewan has its very own Jazz Ensemble — and it’s made up of students from a number of different colleges. What’s more, these musicians can even receive a credit toward their degree for playing in the ensemble.

Dean McNeill, the director of the Jazz Ensemble for the last 19 years, explains why he thinks students should get involved in the Jazz Ensemble.

“[You get] to play good music, to meet lots of friends and to have a good time at the university in a cool kind of setting,” McNeill said. “Over and above that, it tends to look good on people’s resumés.”

Beyond the basic reasons, McNeill also discusses the positive effects that playing music can have on a person.

“There’s tons of research that suggests that doing music, in particular, does something to the body and to the brain that is very good for people,” McNeill said. “Some people call it the integration of mind, body and spirit.”

The Jazz Ensemble plays a variety of music, including big-band arrangements, rock-and-roll tunes, waltzes, polkas and even contemporary popular music. McNeill explains how he chooses the compositions that the Jazz Ensemble plays.

“When I’m choosing repertoire for the Jazz Ensemble, I have a few different learning objectives in mind — one of which is to expose students to the whole pantheon, the whole breadth of musical styles that are often played in jazz,” McNeill said.

McNeill believes that jazz musicians are unique compared to other musicians, as they are required to improvise frequently — and they need to know a variety of playing styles.

“Jazz musicians always have been and continue to this day to be quite versatile and quite chameleon-like in the sense that [with] jazz music, and playing commercial music, you’re often being asked to do many things,” McNeill said.

Currently, the Jazz Ensemble is in the middle of their three-show season this semester — they had a concert at the Bassment in October and will be performing at a masquerade-style ball on Nov. 4. The ensemble’s end-of-semester concert will take place on Nov. 24 at the Quance Theatre.

McNeill discusses the big-band style of music they will be playing at the upcoming Manhattan Ballroom show.

“The big band comes out of the tradition of swing music from the 1930s and ’40s, and at that time, jazz music was popular music, and so we’re doing a dance coming up in early November, where we’re playing not art music but craft music,” McNeill said.

The main difference between art and craft jazz is that audience members are expected to sit at an art music show and dance at a craft music show.

Whether in art or craft form, McNeill believes that participating in music while in university will benefit students in the long run.

“Music tends to get people to be good at creative problem solving. It tends to require people to be good independent learners and to be good communal workers,” McNeill said. “There [are] lots of human-building reasons why it’s good to play music, and there are lots of professional reasons why people should want to be involved in our ensembles while they’re going to university.”

To find out more about the Jazz Ensemble and how to get involved, visit their webpage at the U of S Department of Music website. Tickets for the Manhattan Ballroom show are $20.

Lyndsay Afseth / Staff Writer

Photo: Rosemarie Markwart / Supplied