By Eva-Milan Zsiga
On a crisp night at the end of last week, jazz music filled the air at SUNY Purchase, promoting smooth sensations, and leaving bodies dancing, swaying, moving, and grooving. It was a night that seemed to spontaneously start the weekend even before 12 a.m. came close, officially ringing Friday in.
A dimly lit Campus Center South screamed sweetly with the wails of horns and saxophones in a space that, as of late, has seldom seen any movement to live music. The only life that the space has experienced lately comes from the students in acting and theater and performance classes that are held there. But on this night, C.C.S held an energy that its walls have felt in the past, an energy that came alive again for the school’s first Swing Dance event, hosted by Benjamin Rice, a senior jazz pianist, and featuring the harmonies of the jazz orchestra.
“I remember my freshmen year and sophomore year, SOCA had a bunch of parties here like every weekend,” Rice said. “I don’t know when, but they took the stage down, and I think people didn’t want to use the space anymore because there wasn’t a stage, but the acoustics are still great and it’s a good location. You can catch people from the residence halls that are going to the hub. Everyone kind of passes by it, so it made sense to me. I booked and was praying that it would work out.”
His efforts prove to have paid off. The event kicked off by 10:30 p.m., 15 minutes after its set start time, as a few members of the jazz orchestra made their way over from performing with Zach Berns at his junior recital. Some students came along with the crowd from the Music Building, and others gravitated in due to event fliers that were plastered across the school and social media, or simply from hearing the music emanating far beyond C.C.S.
“As soon as I walked in the music made me happy,” says Claude Gilbert, a sophomore classical cello student. “[When] I came in there was no hesitation, I felt completely welcome.”
The space was neatly set up with three rows of chairs laid out at the back of the room, holding 17 members of the campus’ jazz orchestra ensemble. The ensemble consisted of a five-person saxophone section of two alto saxophones, two tenor saxophones, and one baritone saxophone, a quartet of trombones, which included three normal, tenor trombones, one bass trombone, and four trumpets. The rhythm section was made up of the piano, played by Rice, the guitar, the bass and a drum kit.
“That’s the classic setup,” Rice explained. “That’s what it’s sort of become. I mean Duke Ellington used this format, all the great artists. Pretty much they had big bands use that format more or less. So, it’s a tradition.”
The orchestra belted out back-to-back sounds all night long, covering songs from the 1940s and 50s, including danceable numbers like, “Shiny Stockings,” “One O’Clock Jump,” and “Count Me In”. “Lil’ Darlin,’” one of the night’s slower pieces started up halfway through the event, but for the most part the tunes stayed at the same medium paced tempo, for a smooth type of shimmy that was steady among just about everyone on the floor. Everyone was dancing—some clearly with more technique than others, but that didn’t seem to be a concern for anyone.
“I enjoy dancing,” Gilbert said. “It’s natural. I don’t know if it looks good, but it’s natural to want to move to music. Especially as a musician, it comes more naturally. The quality of the music was so good that it made my quality feel good, and so I was just taking in the music and I felt confident.”
For those who didn’t come to the event carrying as much confidence as Gilbert, there were swing dance lessons provided an hour before the event started. Rice got a fellow Resident Assistant (RA) and a sophomore student in the Dance Conservatory, Danika Bigley, to run the dance lessons.
“It looked like everyone was trying and having a good time,” Rice said. “I was pleased. I mean I know everyone’s not going to be able to execute all the moves but the point is just to have a good time.”
Rice was happy, for the most part, with the turnout of the event, but he explained that the jazz orchestra has the potential for even a larger turnout. He said that the place, matched with the jazz orchestra’s performance, has the potential to have people packed in there like sardines, and that’s what he hopes for—and the timing was perfect. It worked not only as a means to fulfill the program he is required to create as an RA, but more so out of inspiration from past dance nights hosted by the Latin-jazz orchestra. With the popularity of the Latin-jazz dance nights, he figured that someone should provide people with the opportunity to do swing dancing as well.
“The other thing is that the jazz orchestra, we don’t perform that much,” Rice said. “We have one concert at the end of the semester, so this is a chance for us to get out and play for people. It really helps us too, ‘cause when you’re playing for someone who’s dancing, it has to groove. Otherwise, if it doesn’t groove, they’re not gonna want to dance.”
The event was focused around bringing the Purchase community together, welcoming everyone from freshmen to grad students. As an RA in Outback Rice was also inspired to create an event where everyone felt that they were able to safely come together and simply enjoy themselves through dance and music.
“I feel like one of the most important factors that contributes to the happiness that I get from seeing them play, is that I get to watch them in their experience,” said Tatiana Parris, a senior sociology student as she wiggled to the music, “I get to watch them interact with an object, and that’s beautiful. And the more beautiful part about that is that they’re sharing it with tons of people. There’s something more human about it.”
One of the last songs performed was “Happy Birthday To You,” which was dedicated to one of Bigley’s friends. As they pumped out the last notes of their last song, members of the orchestra spontaneously got out of their seats, moving from their positioned places and joining the buzzing crowd in their dance.
“And then at the end the horns come out,” Gilbert said enthusiastically. “They were doing that New Orleans sounding jazz and we were right in the middle of them blaring away. Man, that went straight to the heart.”
For those who happily got the chance to have their Thursday night be one made up of feet-tapping, leg-twisting, hip-shaking rhythms—a night of ears filled with the sweet sounds of the Jazz orchestra—these people can more than likely look forward to another night like this in the coming future. And those who missed out will have another chance to plan their night correctly.
“I don’t think I have much of a choice at this point,” Rice said, in regards to another Swing Jazz event, “because I got so many people that asked me when the next one was happening. I think I’m pretty much locked in on doing another one now, which is good.”
Read More »