James Ketch, music professor and director of jazz studies at UNC, believes famed big band composer Billy Strayhorn is his secret weapon in fostering a greater appreciation for jazz.
The North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra — NCJRO — will perform the works of Strayhorn as part of the music department's William S. Newman Artists Series tonight.
As a jazz and big band composer, Strayhorn spent the summers of his teenage years in Hillsborough cultivating his talent as a young musician.
Ketch said, like Strayhorn, many members of the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra spent their formative years studying and performing music in North Carolina, particularly in the Triangle region.
Michael Kris, bass trombonist in the NCJRO and music director at UNC, said he encourages students and community members to see the performance in order to help encourage a well-rounded community.
“I think the Triangle and the state in general has a lot of high-quality musicians," he said. "I think we’re lucky to have such a pool of talent available."
Titled “Take the ‘A’ Train: Celebrating the Billy Strayhorn Centennial,” the NCJRO’s concert selection implores audiences to take interest in jazz music and the rich history it holds in America.
Ketch said he believes jazz is the soundtrack to the 20th century American story, one that parallels the ideas of democracy. He said even if the audience doesn’t have a connection to the music itself, they can still appreciate the historical significance and beauty of the music.
“If people have never heard (jazz) music, usually all they have to do is be in the room for a few minutes or they hear the sound of a big band and there’s just nothing like it,” Ketch said.
Kris echoed Ketch's view, agreeing that jazz is especially unique.
“Jazz is America’s classical music,” he said. “It was created here and, you know, it’s one of those uniquely American things."
Stephen Coffman, a 2006 UNC graduate and percussionist with the NCJRO, he said that his role as a performer changes within each concert.
Coffman said because each show performed by the orchestra has a musical theme, the band has the opportunity to style each show in a different manner, giving the audience the opportunity to experience a unique performance each time they see the NCJRO.
Ketch said giving students the opportunity to hear Strayhorn’s music in an academic venue both educates the community about the history of jazz and allows the music to reach a broader audience.
“Primarily the University is such a curator of the arts for our country now,” Ketch said. “It is the responsibility of the University, I think, to kind of collect this art — showcase it, invite the public to it, let them sample it and then hopefully one fan at a time find new listeners who are very excited about the music.”
“Its power and its color and its range of emotional exploration is really unparalleled. So part of it is just getting it available to people so that they can come and hear it.”
The North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra will perform the concert, “Take the ‘A’ Train”: Celebrating the Billy Strayhorn Centennial,” in the William S. Newman Artist’s Series on Friday, Sept. 19th at 8:00 PM in the Rehearsal Hall of the Kenan Music Building.
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