Looking on with a smile, a playful beat is kept by drummer Charles Battle. Guitarist Gavin Maxwell and vibraphone player Amorn Wongsarnpigoon pass the lead. All five players using eye contact to hold together the ensemble they christened The Back Line.
They look the part of jazz veterans, hunched over their instruments, but these UNC students are just that -- students -- and they're preparing for a performance in today's installment of the Friday Afternoon Jazz Series, featuring the UNC Jazz Combos.
This rehearsal is one of many before their usual monthly concerts, which showcases their years of study and appreciation for jazz.
The series begins with today's performance and continues throughout the year. It is designed to give the University's jazz scene more exposure and students more intimate performing opportunities.
"We try to prepare jazz students to go out and become professionals and everything that entails," said Scott Warner, director of jazz bands and jazz studies, before the rehearsal.
The combos consist of full time students and act as a laboratories for small jazz ensembles to interact in professional situations. They cover a wide range of styles such as fusion, Latin jazz, swing and the classics.
But familiarity with the music is only part of their training. Warner added that he insists on providing students with performing skills, sending them out into the community to showcase their talents. "The focus is on the individual players and what they have to say," he said.
The students themselves have nothing but good things to say about the program. "There's a lot of freedom in it," Battle said about his combo experience. "You put your own touch on everything you play. It's personal."
Many of these students have been exposed to jazz for years. Some are new to the genre. But they all are there to learn, which is why they have the guidance of musicians both from the University and from Chapel Hill. Local professionals coach these jazz combos -- veteran musicians like Thomas Taylor, the coach of this particular ensemble, as well as Warner.
The combo players' experiences are similar. Almost all became fascinated by jazz in high school after hearing their jazz heroes for the first time. But their hopes for a future in music are strained, a problem for many talented UNC students.
Timmons, a sophomore music major, and Battle, a junior English major, agree that pursuing a career in music is a hard road to travel. Both have tough choices to make -- deciding how music will fit into their future. Timmons has dreams of going to Nashville, Tenn., a center for recording. "I've been assessing myself as a musician, wondering how I'm going to make a living," he said.
But Battle has different goal in mind. "I'd give anything to just play music for the rest of my life, but it's a tough business to make a living at, to support a family," Battle said.
"No matter what I do, I'll always have music as a part of my life."
But in the short term, The Back Line is all about the music as the rehearsal concludes. The five jazz players look at each other as the music comes to a slow close. In those looks is shy wonder, found when a group knows they have created something special.
The Friday Afternoon Jazz Series begins at 4 p.m. today in 107 Hill Hall.
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