Walking into the Fat Fish Pub on a Thursday night, one is welcomed by a number of familiar and unfamiliar faces who have all gathered to experience Jazz Night. While there is some conversation, most of the voices are low as the audience focuses on the music being created on the stage.
The Cherry Street Combo, consisting entirely of Knox students, plays in a seemingly effortless manner that attempts to relax the audience, yet allows it to remain attentive. Jazz Night is the most prominent aspect of the jazz culture at Knox, appealing to a number of diverse individuals.
Andy Crawford is managing director of the Knox Jazz Year, which is an annual program consisting of three events that occur during fall, winter, and spring term. Crawford graduated from Knox in 2000, and has been part of the jazz community at Knox since he arrived in 1996.
Crawford said that the Knox Jazz Year includes the Jerome Mirza Jazz Residency in the fall, the Winter Jazz Series in January, and the Rootabaga Jazz Festival in April. With these events, members of the Jazz communities bring in big names who have expanded what jazz music consists of.
Another aspect of jazz at Knox, and perhaps the most popular event among students, is the weekly Jazz Night at Fat Fish Pub. Jazz night occurs every Thursday from 8p.m. until midnight and features a performance by the Cherry Street Combo, which is the more professional combo on campus. The group also performs for events on campus, such as the opening of the Whitcomb Art Building.
Crawford said that Jazz Night has been part of the Knox culture for 25 years, and has changed locations several times within that time frame. It first took place at the Cherry Street Bar and Grill, which is how the Cherry Street Combo got its name. It then moved to Wd’s Sports Bar and Restaurant, to McGillicuddy’s, and finally to Fat Fish Pub.
Senior Mike Sockol, who plays the vibraphone as well as other percussion instruments in the Cherry Street Combo, has been involved in jazz at Knox since his freshman year. He hopes to get involved with jazz combos in Chicago and will continue to use jazz as an influence for his production of electronic music. He encourages anyone with an interest in music to get involved with the jazz community at Knox.
Sockol said that one of the most rewarding aspects of jazz is that it is always changing, and the limits of what is or isn’t part of the jazz culture are loose and constantly expanding.
“Every time you play a song it’s like you’re playing it for the first time,” he said. “It’s going to be such a different iteration of that song.”
For sophomore Augustus Martini, being involved in jazz at Knox has benefitted him by widening his range of abilities as a musician in general. Though Martini is not primarily a jazz musician, he recognizes that what he learns from jazz can be incorporated into other types of music.
“I think what jazz helps the most is learning how to necessarily improvise on end only in a way that you can really learn from that type of music,” he said. Martini described that, though improvisation is intentional in jazz music, knowing how to improvise and make quick artistic decisions is helpful in all types of musical performance.
Sockol described that within his time at Knox, he has seen fluctuations in the talent arriving each year in addition the interests of people from year to year. The varying interests have led to an increase in the amount of experimentation that occurs within the jazz combos. He expressed that jazz has expanded to include electronic and hip hop influences that were not included when he was a freshman.
To Sockol, the credit for jazz remaining relevant can be given to its loose constraints and its ability to evolve according to the variety of artistic interests.
“Arguably, people say jazz is dead, but I think it’s amorphous, so I don’t think it’s ever going to actually die,” he said. “The forms which it assumes is going to be different.”
“If you play an instrument and like the idea of speaking through that instrument with very little constraints, you should definitely try jazz even if you don’t like the genre,” he said. “There’s so many different facets of jazz that there’s something for everyone.”
Martini expressed that the idea of improvisation in music is not likely to die out, but that the idea we have of jazz today may begin to evolve into a new idea.
“Genre names are commodification more than indicative of any musical structure,” he said. “If by jazz I mean improvised music, then I don’t think it will ever die out. If I mean the old school type jazz, maybe.”
Though he doesn’t think he will continue with jazz once he graduates from Knox, Martini intends to continue his involvement in the music scene. He expressed that the institutional approach to jazz within the Knox community is what has caused it to remain more relevant than it may be in other locations. He described that events such as the Mirza Residency and the Rootabaga Jazz Festival have appealed to the Knox population and retained its relevance.
Crawford expressed that the events encompassed in the Knox Jazz Year are set up to get the message across to students that jazz music may not be what they expect when they think of jazz music.
“Jazz is a hybrid of so many different genres. It’s not necessarily what people think jazz is or was,” he said.
The annual Jerome Mirza Residency takes place each fall and consists of workshops and lessons from widely known jazz artists. The week ends with a public performance of the featured artist combined with students from the Knox Jazz Ensemble and from Knox Jazz Combos.
Crawford noted that the 2014 Mirza Residency featured Donny McCaslin, who has since then achieved wide success and even collaborated with David Bowie on his last album before he passed away. McCaslin demonstrated the effects of combining jazz with rock and electronica.
“What we’re trying to do is show what jazz is today and where it’s moving in the future and always keeping it relevant,” Crawford said. By bringing in artists such as McCaslin, Crawford hopes to replace the preconceived idea of jazz with a more modern idea.
Though these events are not frequented as heavily as the Thursday Jazz Nights, Crawford emphasized the importance of attending such events. He described that a lot of people have a preconceived notion of what jazz is that might deter them from attending some of the other less popular events.
In addition to an increasing awareness of all of the aspects of jazz at Knox, Crawford is hoping to expand the events themselves, such as the annual Rootabaga Jazz Festival held every spring, He mentioned the possibility of expanding the usual Friday event to include a street fair. With all of this planned, Jazz at Knox looks ready for the non-forseeable future.