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UNCG jazz takes their rhythm to the Big Apple

by Amy Kingsley

‘“Rap bedobboba bedo da ba ba baaaa!’” sings Steve Haines, director of the UNCG Jazz Ensemble. He is stomping his foot and marking beats with right hand karate chops.

‘“Does that make sense to everyone?’”

‘“Ummm’…could you sing it again?’” comes a response from one of the trumpets in the back row. Haines takes a deep breath and starts again from the top.

The director is taking his 17-member ensemble through some last-minute adjustments to ‘“Sing Sing Sing,’” a song composed by Louis Prima and popularized by the Benny Goodman Orchestra. It’s one of the last musical details the group has to handle before departing Jan. 15 for a performance the next day at New York’s Lincoln Center.

The other particulars are purely cosmetic.

‘“So everyone should wear a black suit with a white shirt,’” Haines says. ‘“Everyone has a black suit, right?’”

There’s a noise from the saxophone section.

‘“I thought you had a black suit. It’s pin stripe? Well that’ll work.’”

Clothing settled, the ensemble gets back to business with their opening Duke Ellington number, ‘“Rockin’ in Rhythm.’” I’m sitting in the back behind the trumpet section when Haines points to me between three layers of musicians and beckons me to the front.

He leans briefly on my shoulder and says, ‘“It’s much better from in front.’”

He’s right. Now all the bells on the 13-strong brass section point in my direction. Section leaders take their solos in turn while Haines coaches them along, shouting tempo notes alongside encouragement.

The band locks into a groove and they’re really blowing. Haines smiles and takes a seat.

‘“I’m really proud of these guys,’” he says.

Then before he can get comfortable he’s up again, pacing and tapping to the music. He meets his players’ eyes and holds them through complicated passages. For a minute, he joins Michael Van Patter on the piano bench and plays a few notes.

Tonight is the last long rehearsal the ensemble has before embarking on the trip to New York. Tomorrow they will meet for an hour in the afternoon. Then it’s time to pack.

The guys in this group will be opening for a big band from Cologne, Germany, and it’s the most high-profile gig most of these musicians have had. Despite that, the students smile and laugh like it’s nothing more than another semester recital.

Instead of plying their trade in isolated Greensboro, these musicians will be performing in the heart of the modern jazz world. It isn’t just the performance that is an opportunity; it’s the trip itself.

And Haines is making sure that they take advantage of it. He scored the entire group tickets to the Village Vanguard, a legendary jazz club marking its 70th year of existence, on their first night in the city. Kurt Rosenwinkel, a post-bop guitar hero, will be performing that night.

Back in the rehearsal room Haines is trying to get the ensemble through the entire Lincoln Center program without stopping. It doesn’t work. He pauses them a couple times to make adjustments. When they’re hitting it, he gives notes via air drums, guitar, piano or whatever else needs tweaking.

When they band starts up on ‘“Canada’s Ocean Voyage,’” Haines walks over to me again.

‘“This is one I wrote about Nova Scotia,’” he says. ‘“The music is supposed to emulate the sound of the waves on the rocks.’”

Haines himself hails from the Great White North, but he got his master of music in much warmer climes ‘— the University of North Texas in Denton. He’s taught at UNCG for seven years, and led the Jazz Ensemble throughout his tenure. It’s been a good run, chock full of successes ranging from great gigs to awards lavished on their recordings.

Some of the other big performances have lured them out of the state. They’ve played the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and several venues in the region.

But folks in Greensboro need not despair; the ensemble will perform in Aycock Auditorium on Feb. 11 as part of the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program. The group also produces a professional-quality CD every year as part of their educational program. This year it is titled Vision.

‘“It’s fun,’” Haines says. ‘“We’re going to have fun. We may get booed off the stage, but we’ll have a good time.’”

They guys seem relaxed. No one appears terribly concerned about massive heckling. Greensboro may not be New York, but these students already proved themselves by earning a spot at the Dizzy Club. Now, it’s time for them to enjoy themselves.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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