Colby Jazz Band says to the world: “We Have Standards”

“We Have Standards.” That’s the name Colby Jazz Band Director Eric Thomas chose for the group’s upcoming concert. 

“I’m a dad, so I tell dad jokes,” Thomas said in an interview with the Echo. “[The concert is] all standard tunes, or contrafacts . . . ”

Contrafacts are musical compositions with unique melodies, written over familiar harmonic structures.According to Thomas, the best known one is rhythm changes, with over a thousand tunes written over its harmonic structure. 

Jazz musicians, hoping to avoid performance fees, would write their own songs over the chord changes they loved, and the practice caught on, and continues today. Thomas is cooking up something special for November’s concert; a mixture of rhythm changes, contrafacts, blues, latin, swing, and even some features for the rhythm section. According to Thomas, this will resonate with musicians as  “you get to play alone for a while, instead of ‘hey, I’m background all the time.’”

The Jazz Band rehearses once a week on Thursday nights. It features students on saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass, guitar, and drums. Non-students are sometimes brought in to fill out instrument sections, should not enough students be available. 

But some students just can’t get enough jazz! There are several smaller, separate jazz bands which rehearse and play independently of the larger jazz ensemble. These student groups are an opportunity for students to take their art in their own direction and get a taste of the real music world, learning, organizing, and performing pieces on your own. This is a good opportunity for student musicians, as much of one’s learning can and should be conducted independently. Famous jazz trumpetist Miles Davis dropped out of the prestigious Juilliard School at age 19 to pursue his own musical interests. That same spirit of freedom is present in these independent jazz ensembles, as students take on much more responsibility in getting themselves performance-ready. Each jazz ensemble draws upon students at many different levels of technical skill and expertise.

“I’m trying to give just a little bit of everything to everybody,” Thomas said. “So if there are people that know very little, I’m trying to get them up a little bit, [and] if there are people that know a lot, okay, let’s try adding a few of these things.”

Thomas teaches to each student’s potential, and frequently meets with students outside of rehearsal to work on some of their more difficult pieces.This January, students will have the option to take his JanPlan course, “Jazz Improvisation.” The class’s prerequisites? 

“I take just about every level, and what I say [is]…you really have to know a major scale. But by that I mean you really have to know a major scale, not just be able to get through it, but play all of it, and know what the relationship is . . . ” Thomas said.

The College’s jazz presence isn’t just limited to students – Thomas also performed this past Saturday night, as a part of the Colby Jazz Collective, with four other fellow musicians, Christine Correa, Jon Hallstrom, Matthew Houston, and Gustavo Aguilar. They played a set of music by Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach. The music was made in 1960, during the era of growing demands for equal rights for African-Americans in the United States. The music’s content outlined the struggle of African Americans from Apartheid to emancipation. Throughout the performance, the musicians showcased their individual and combined expertise, and kept the audience of students and parents on their toes.

Jazz music has a strong presence on the College’s campus, with a gifted director and dozens of dedicated students, as well as many more student fans. Their soul and passion for the art is part of what makes Colby great. Come see “We’ve Got Standards” on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. in the Bixler Given Auditorium, and keep an eye out for more from the College’s student-led ensembles.