Nikki Malley, Chair of Music at Knox, said the person that is likely the most nervous about the Jerome Mirza Jazz Residency concert this Friday is the sound guy. Though he emailed a month ago asking what the setup should be for the first performance, Malley has nothing yet to tell him.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen. The idea with this residency is we try not to have anything planned because we want it to happen in the moment,” said Managing Director of the Knox Jazz Year Andrew Crawford.
The Jerome Mirza Jazz Residency, an annual fall program that ushers in famous musicians to Knox, features Caroline Davis and Rob Clearfield Quartet this year. Members of the quartet will have spent the week playing jazz alongside student-musicians before performing for free this Friday in the Orpheum Theatre at 7 p.m.
Caroline Davis, saxophonist and Rob Clearfield, pianist — first met at a jam session in a now defunct Chicago jazz club, the Velvet Lounge. Clearfield, who dropped out of Roosevelt College to pursue a career in jazz, was playing for the in house band and Davis was inspired by his work.
“This idea of just writing your own music for your own project and really putting everything into your band Ñ that was a big part of me being inspired by that and it took me a little bit longer to kind of sort of get on the train for that,” Davis said.
Though Davis minored in music for her undergraduate degree, she was focused on studying psychology before she and Clearfield ever collaborated on an album
“I got my PhD, so it took six years of pretty hardcore lab, neuroscience, lab, cognitive psychology, lab work,” Davis said. “So I was still kind of going out and seeing music and trying to play in bands, but I wasn’t shedding [practicing)] and I wasn’t getting better on my horn.”
Clearfield said that performing one’s original music with other people at a gig can be a jarring experience. But Clearfield felt the tunes that he and Davis both wrote, their “vibe” of music worked well together. The sole album they have created together, Anthems, features songs they have both written.
“We have a similar sensibility, I think, of how much we want the compositions to — on the one hand we want the compositions to foster very open and expressive improvisation — but we also want the improvisation to serve the composition,” Clearfield said. “Where it’s not just, ‘Oh, this is just a jumping off point for us to then really do our thing.’ It’s like no, it’s also we improvise where it’s in support of the composition.”
During the Mirza Residency, the two musicians hoped to help student musicians with the technical side of their music, but also provide guidance for the mental aspect of inspiration and dedication. For Davis, who had to read 400 pages a week while in graduate school, her experience in academia informs her advice about practicing.
“I just see a lot of college students getting into this rut, you know, of being stuck in their cycles that they’ve created for themselves or cycles that have to do that they’re just busy and it’s like, ‘Ah, I have to go to this class,’ and ‘I took my physics exam this morning,’ and ‘I don’t have time to practice saxophone,’ and I’m like, ‘Well yeah, you do if you took this ten minutes,” Davis said.
Davis and Clearfield are well matched, not only in their styles of music but also in how they interpret a music education. Davis said she learned from her mentors and other musicians in the Chicago and New York jazz scene. Clearfield, who also did not pursue a formal education in music, stressed the value of not waiting on the sidelines to pursue one’s passion.
“From my experience, I hear somebody say that, ‘Oh I’m going to write music as soon as I learn more theory,’ and it’s just like, ‘Okay, you are never going to write music for your entire life.’ That’s just what I think when I hear people say that,” Clearfield said. “Because for a lot of reasons — some of it is I love theory and I use theory when I write, but you don’t need music theory to write music.”
Though Crawford and Malley prefer to figure out who will perform at Friday’s concert organically — other than the Davis and Clearfield Quartet Ñ by discovering how the Residency sessions unfold, it is likely some combination of the Knox Jazz Ensemble, the Cherry Street Combo and individual student compositions will all be featured on the Orpheum’s stage as well.
Davis and Clearfield both stressed the importance of practicing and performing music with other people. “Find your people,” Davis said, and according to Clearfield, he never laughed less than while on a solo tour.
“Music, and art in general, happens usually in communities and not in a vacuum. Especially if you aren’t trying to be a professional musician and collaborating all the time — to still be a part of a musical community, creative community,” Clearfield said.