Walk into ChezSoDo Café on a brisk Monday night and there will be a soothing scene waiting just inside the door. A large open room with lights off welcomes anyone straying in off 11th Street. Small wooden tables are packed with an enraptured audience all gazing intently upon the stage, where a vibrant jazz ensemble presides over the venue. Violet and blue stage lights pierce through the darkness of the space, while swelling notes and invigorating compositions echo freely.
This relaxing scene is thanks to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Jazz Orchestra, playing as a part of ChezSoDo’s Capital Jazz Fall 2019 Series. Each Monday night from 7-9 p.m., jazz performers take the stage at ChezSoDo Café. Admission is free, although patrons are able to enjoy a light dinner or a quick drink. All ages are welcome to come by and listen.
David von Kampen, director for the UNL Jazz Orchestra, said he is proud to get his students this opportunity for exposure. He joined as the group’s director in August 2019. Although new to the Jazz Orchestra as a director, von Kampen has a great deal of experience leading musical groups on campus. He previously directed UNL’s Jazz Singers group, and also teaches music theory and ear training within the Glenn Korff School of Music.
Jazz Orchestra is familiar to von Kampen, as he played in the group 10 years ago while getting his undergraduate and master’s degrees at UNL. He rose to the role of director when Paul Haar, the ensemble’s prior director, stepped down. Haar recommended von Kampen for the position, where he’s been overseeing ever since. He said he was happy to accept as he is passionate about the Big Band style of jazz music.
“Big Band is a very expressive medium, I think. It can be very powerful and it can also be really sensitive. There’s a lot of cool things you can do with a jazz band,” von Kampen said.
The jazz ensemble plays mostly on campus, but has opportunities to play in a more public space, such as ChezSoDo jazz night. The performance on Nov. 11 was the group’s first off-campus show this school year, and von Kampen considered it to be a success.
“I thought it went pretty well. There’s always room for improvement, but we had a nice crowd and it’s a great place to play music, and it was a really great experience overall,” von Kampen said.
The entire set list for concerts is handpicked by von Kampen, although he does allow for some collaboration with the group to decide on a final program. Before each performance, he works with the band to decide song order, and finalizes a set list.
During the band’s Nov. 11 set, the ensemble played seven pieces combined from their previous performances, as well as new pieces slated for its upcoming on-campus December show.
Aside from the pieces performed, though, von Kampen said he knows getting on stage together can benefit his ensemble. He aims for the Jazz Orchestra to improve upon their listening skills and truly enjoy the experience of performing.
“I hope [the students are] learning how to listen better, and how to be part of an ensemble and play with a lot of style and heart, and increase their technical accuracy,” von Kampen said. “I guess the big takeaway, at the end of the day, is just to try and have a great musical experience. We want the people listening to enjoy it, and we want the band to enjoy what they’re playing.”
Students are often given a chance to improve playing skills. One feature of jazz orchestra that encourages this growth is the presence of solos. The UNL Jazz Orchestra performance featured a multitude of solos highlighting different instruments. All players had to audition to be in the jazz orchestra. During those audition times, von Kampen and his colleagues, such as grad assistants and fellow conductors, decided who to place in each solo chair.
“If there’s a trumpet solo, most of the time I know which trumpet player is going to have it based on how the chart is set up. So, we don’t really have auditions in rehearsals, but those decisions come out of earlier auditions,” von Kampen said.
Fans of jazz music may know that a large part of the genre is improvised. In a big band environment, such as the Jazz Orchestra, soloists utilize improvisation during performances, as is tradition in jazz performance. According to von Kampen, students who get up to solo are creating the tune as they go along, based off of a couple chords or notations indicated by the piece’s composer. This lends itself to a distinct feature — jazz orchestra shows are different and evolving every time; no solo will ever be the same.
Gracie Fagen, a freshman music composition major at UNL, is an ensemble member who holds the trumpet section solo chair. She began playing jazz in high school, sometimes doubling up on instruments but mainly focusing on trumpet. She said she has held a passion for jazz since middle school, and was ecstatic to finally start performing jazz when asked to by her high school band director.
“I am forever grateful for [the director inviting me to play], because I ended up just falling in love with it. I had been listening to jazz a lot during my childhood, but never saw myself as a performer … but after a lot of hard work and practice it’s finally paying off. Now, I can breathe, relax and just play,” Fagan said.
In school, Fagan focuses on music composition, but she still thoroughly enjoys the practice of putting on shows. She relishes the healing aspect of music, and its power to bring people together.
“I love making other people overjoyed and emotional and giving them really good memories to connect with,” Fagan said “Music is something that everyone can connect with. So, if you give the world music, everyone can get along a little bit better.”