During a jazz rehearsal, Steven Bernstein paces back and forth in front of the Knox Jazz Ensemble, dipping his head forward between two players in the front row to listen closely to their instruments. Wearing a blue cap just above his ears, a tight-striped scarf around his neck and thick glasses with turquoise frames, Bernstein conducts the band through a series of intermittent stops and starts.
He likes to single out players and instruments one at a time, repeatedly saying things like: “What if…”, “How about…”, and “Check this out…” At one point he points to a trombone player and asks him to grab a pencil to take notes.
Together Bernstein and the band adjust and construct elements of the piece as they practice for their performance at the Orpheum this Thursday, Nov. 8 at 7 p.m.
Bernstein is an artist-in-residence with the Jerome Mirza Jazz Residency, an idea developed by Knox alumnus Candace Mirza ‘81 and Chair of the Music Department Nikki Malley.
While there are many music programs already in place at Knox, namely the Rootabaga Jazz Festival and the Winter Jazz Series, the Jerome Mirza Jazz Residency was created to dynamically supplement the Knox Jazz program in an impactful way for students.
The Mirza Residency functions by inviting prolific jazz artists to Knox for one week every fall. During this week, the invited artist works with music students in a culmination of private lessons, band rehearsals and class talks. Malley highlights the value of exposure to a diverse range of artists.
“The idea is to kind of expand our jazz program beyond what it is. So I love our jazz program … but we are still a small school and the more creative artists you can get in front of students, the more they learn about jazz and the more approaches to jazz they experience because jazz is not one thing,” Malley said.
Malley first met Bernstein, this month’s featured artist, two years ago during a sabbatical spent in upstate New York at a program called the Creative Music Foundation. This was a week-long foundation open to musicians of all styles with a focus on creative improvisation. Bernstein was a guiding artist one day, leading the participants.
Malley considered Bernstein’s style of inclusivity for participants of different skill levels perfect for the Knox department, where students vary in degrees of experience and commitment.
After agreeing to be the guest artist, Bernstein sent some of his music to the Knox Jazz Ensemble which has subsequently been practicing in the five to six weeks preceding his arrival on campus.
“The students also get the experience of working with a composer on their music which is a really really powerful experience. I can do a great job of inspiring people to like the music that I program, but I didn’t write it. There is a whole different level of engagement, same thing [as] you’re acting in a play and you’re working with the playwright,” Malley said.
As a result, the Mirza Residency emphasizes on allowing the guest artist the freedom to work with the students in the goal of creating something new. While the first half of Thursday’s performance will be Knox students, the second half will be the Steve Bernstein Quartet. Open and free to Knox students, as well as the Galesburg community, Malley hopes to see a high turnout Thursday night.
“I would love to just see the Orpheum full. I think a lot of people, students and others think they are not jazz fans because they have a specific idea of what jazz is, down to a specific style or approach, and this will not be anything anybody immediately thinks of as jazz,” Malley said.