It's one thing for a jazz musician to master the skill of improvisation in the practice room and another to seamlessly lead a band, command the stage, and captivate an audience while on the road, especially in a foreign country. To help students develop into world-class musicians, the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music exposes them to a broad array of performing opportunities, such as the annual International Bern Jazz Festival.
Every spring since 2009, New School students have come together with other musicians from around the world in the de facto capital of Switzerland to celebrate jazz and collaborate on groundbreaking performances. They take the stage in small group ensembles to perform unique sets prepared on campus in the weeks leading up to the festival. Once in Bern, each group plays for a full five days, keeping up with a highly demanding schedule of three 45-minute sets per night.
For Jazz students, performing at Bern is an opportunity to tour, travel, and play in front of large audiences for the first time. This intense routine transforms the musicians from a group of individuals into a real band and gives them an understanding of what it's like to be a working musician, especially a traveling one.
Although set up to play alongside some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world - this year's headliners included Cécile McLorin Salvant, Benny Green, and Kenny Barron - New School students are not outshone in Bern. Audiences often return nightly to hear the student bands play and to cheer on the young performers. This enthusiasm helps spark new projects, forming working groups that stay together for years once they return home.
Jazz student Morgan Guerin was selected to be a bandleader at Bern this year. Already a talented saxophone, piano, and EWI (electronic wind instrument) player, Guerin was eager to put together a band and take on an international professional gig. “It felt great,” he says, “almost like playing back in the day at the Village Vanguard when you had a whole week to present your music to an audience.” Hattie Simon, a BA/BFA student in the Jazz Vocals and Global Studies programs, was equally thrilled to form a band, which has stayed together beyond the festival. “I did really feel like I came out of this meeting some amazing musicians, and now we have a plan to move forward and record some music in the fall,” says Simon.
One benefit of performing abroad is that students gain experience with different audiences. “In every place, people react differently to music, the audience is different, and you don't know what they're going to like,” says Dor Samoha, Jazz Bass '18, another bandleader at Bern. “I think it's very important for every musician, at a certain point in his or her life, to travel around the world playing in different places. That way you see how the business basically works and find inspiration by hearing new and exciting music.”