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Musicians, students jam out at Carolina Jazz Festival


The UNC Big Band performed on Feb. 23, 2023, at the UNC Jazz Festival. 

Photo Courtesy of Kaiden J. Yu.

At the end of last week, soulful melodies and improvisations could be heard around UNC’s campus.

The Carolina Jazz Festival — hosted by the UNC Jazz Studies area and Carolina Performing Arts — held performances on Thursday, Friday and Saturday as a way to expose the community to jazz music and give students and faculty the opportunity to interact with guest artists. 

The festival's headliner, Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride performed on Friday night in Memorial Hall.

Guest artist Sharel Cassity, a composer, educator and prominent alto saxophone player performed on Thursday at Durham Sharp 9 Gallery Jazz Club and collaborated with UNC Jazz Combos and Jazz Band students for a performance on Friday.

Cassity was an adjudicator for Saturday's North Carolina Regional Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Festival, a competition for high school jazz bands in which students and conductors receive feedback on their performances of music by Duke Ellington, a prolific 20th-century composer and performer. 

Founded by UNC’s retired jazz director Jim Ketch in 1977, the Carolina Jazz Festival sources a diverse pool of guest artists so students can see themselves represented, Stephen Anderson, director of the Jazz Studies area, said.

When the Jazz Studies area was selecting who they wanted to host this year, Anderson said they thought Cassity would be a good fit, as she is considered a rising star in the world of jazz music and is a young artist who is "just a great example of what [students] can become."

Cassity said that her father taught her how to play piano when she was six and she was going to become a classical pianist, but after jamming to Charlie Parker records at age 14, she decided she wanted to pursue jazz. 

“At that time, there weren’t many female saxophone players," Cassity said. "It wasn’t a thing. So they sort of thought I lost my mind. But you know, it’s what I was called to do.” 

In the future, she said she hopes the deep history and language of jazz continues to be remembered, but that modern listeners will push the music forward. 

“As a musician, I’m always trying to learn from the masters and channel information to create something new that’s meaningful to not only myself but the time we’re living in and the people that are around me,” Cassity said

Anderson said jazz as a genre began in American Black communities in the early 20th century, but has now become a global genre. 

He said that jazz led to certain developments in music, such as rhythm sections and improvisation, that continue to live on today. 

“The other beauty of improvisation and jazz is the player’s skill level can come out, and there’s just some phenomenal talent and different ways people approach improvisation that lives on in our form, something we’re very passionate about,” Anderson said.

Rahsaan Barber, director of the UNC Jazz Band, said that the festival exposes students across all levels, including high school, to a wide variety of bands and guest artists they might have never seen before. 

“Jazz was the first music that opened the door in academia for other cultures to find a foothold and to be musically respected, revered and studied,” Barber said

Bethany Robinson, an Essentially Ellington cliniciansaid she listened to every band’s performance and gave comments, as well as worked with them in a short feedback session.

She said that jazz musicians are lifelong learners of the music and that even as an adult professional, musicians are frequently trying to improve their crafts through feedback from other peers or mentors. 

“There’s no room for discouragement or a strong critique that could cut a student down at all,” Robinson said. “It’s all about how you can positively plant some seeds or get them excited to take ownership of their own musical journey.”


@dthlifestyle |

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