Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series featuring the Knox jazz ensembles.
For many Knox students, Thursday nights are anticipated not for the looming weekend but for Jazz Nights.
A weekly occurrence, Jazz Night features Knox’s Cherry Street Combo, a student jazz ensemble that plays at the local restaurant McGuillicuddy’s from 8 p.m. to midnight every Thursday. Free to attend, Jazz Nights lead to “interaction between the students and the community,” Associate in Applied Music and director of the combo David Hoffman said.
“It’s become a mainstay of the [jazz] program,” Instructor of Music and director of Knox’s jazz program Nikki Malley said, adding that the combo drew many music students to Knox.
To perform professionally on a weekly basis is an unusual opportunity, said Malley.
The ensemble was one of the reasons senior and two-year member of Cherry Street Combo Josh Garties chose Knox.
“One of the things that attracted me to this school was the fact I could perform in ensembles without being a music major,” Garties said.
A long history
Founded in 1990, the combo originally performed at the Cherry Street Restaurant and Bar, which also gave them their name. However, when Cherry Street briefly closed in 2000, the combo moved to a restaurant that no longer exists. They moved back to Cherry Street in 2001 but moved again in 2004 — this time, just across the street to McGuillicudy’s, where they have played ever since.
“Even in the real world of music, to have a weekly jazz gig for 22 years — we’ve been very lucky that we have businesses that supported us,” Malley said.
While the location has changed, the general structure of the combo has not. Primarily student-led, the combo ranges in size from three to seven members each year and represents, according to Malley, “the strongest students” in the jazz department.
“It’s the top jazz performing ensemble at Knox,” Garties said. “It’s kind of something a lot of people aspire to. When I got serious about musical things, that became something that was in my sights.”
The combo always has, at minimum, a bass, drums and either a guitar or piano. The horn section “really depends on who is ready,” Malley said; this year, the combo boasts trombones and tenor saxophones in addition to both guitar and piano.
“It’s a problem and an opportunity every time we graduate people,” Malley said of the rotating lineup. She pointed out that it could be a challenge to work with a number of new players. At the same time, however, the turnover allows the combo to stay unique.
“The group is different every year. We’re not just recycling the same material,” Malley said.
Most of the material the group does use is chosen by combo members themselves. Members take turns assuming the role of the band leader each week and are responsible for bringing in new pieces. This year, the combo has several two-year members and has seen an increase in student-composed pieces.
Since jazz features a large amount of improvisation and soloing, much of the group’s rehearsal time — about two hours a week — focuses on developing these elements.
“We’ll stop, we’ll get feedback, we’ll talk among ourselves about what worked and what didn’t, we’ll run it again,” Garties said.
“That’s why the live gig is so important,” Malley said. “The only way to get better at improvisations is to do it, and do it a lot. You learn really fast because when you make the wrong choice it sounds bad.”
In recent years, Hoffman has also encouraged the students to start memorizing large amounts of music, giving them a standard jazz repertoire musicians are expected to know when playing with other professionals. Even with this, however, Hoffman saw his role with the combo as keeping it “casually organized.”
“It’s more like coaching than being a director,” Hoffman said.
His coaching has led to a combo whose performances, for many students, provide one of the highlights of the week.
“It’s something I look forward to,” jazz night regular and junior John Budding said. “It’s a good place to collectively chill with all my friends.”
“It kind of makes me forget that I’m in Galseburg. It feels like something that would happen in a bigger city,” senior Jenna Temkin said.
For Garties, spending two years in the combo and performing professionally on a weekly basis let him grow as a musician.
“We’ve gotten a lot better, as individual musicians and as a group,” he said. “We do a lot of things that we couldn’t imagined have doing before.”