Gusman Concert Hall, part of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami
If you listen closely, past the booming bass and beats of electronic dance music and past the synth-powered melodies of indie rock, you might vaguely hear a different kind of sound floating above the mainstays of the Magic City’s music scene. Its source, the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Some of the best musicians in the country, if not the world, have brought their talents to Coral Gables. While the school imports and exports some of the best in every genre you can imagine, its jazz program is one of unmatchable quality and prestige.Still it is nothing without its students, and Sophomore Davis Sprague, a trombone player, would not rather be anywhere else. “Everything always feels revolutionary; nothing is ever stale,” Sprague said. “It’s a really great vibe.”
Aside from classes, a typical semester includes weekly music lessons, performing in jazz ensembles and attending forums. The forums feature guest speakers from the industry who often perform for the students. Sometimes, even the professors get to show their pupils how it’s done. “All of the teachers are outrageous,” Sprague said. “Basically, if the faculty wanted to form an ensemble and go make a record, they could.”
There is a strong sense of camaraderie and respect between jazz students as well, even despite the competition created by so much talent vying for leadership positions within their respective ensembles and sections. “I get the feeling everyone is here to make their music, not get the top spot in the band” Sprague said. That’s not really what’s important.”
So what is important? For these musicians, ‘it don’t mean a thing if it aint got that swing.’ “There’s not a lot of jazz where I’m from in New Hampshire,” Sprague said. “I discovered it on my own, but when I came here last year it really exploded.”
Even international students find their way to the jazz program in search of its unrivaled curriculum and the opportunity to simply play their music. Australia is well represented, and so is Brazil with Rafael De Lima, a second-year graduate student who plays the saxophone. “Here in the United States, there are more places to play, studios to record in and more musicians with which to work.” De Lima said in Portuguese. He also sees teamwork, which in his case happens between himself and the school’s undergrads. “The school is very united,” De Lima said. “Many of my works and compositions end up being sent to be played by “hybrid groups” or a combination of graduate and undergraduate students.”
All of the students who come to the school to fine-tune their craft first had to go through an audition process. For De Lima, this involved simply sending in his compositions to be reviewed by faculty. Sprague also sent in his material, and attended a regional audition. “It was so nerve-racking,” Sprague recalls. “Playing in front of a camera is weird, but when there‘s someone watching you saying ‘Imagine I’m not here’ and you’re in front of a camera, it’s even weirder.”
Tad Nicol, a sophomore who plays the saxophone, not only sent in material that showcased his work, but also made an extra effort to make an impression. “I called the sax professor to set up a lesson, because that’s what my friend did,” Nicol said. “It gave me time to show-off.”
However, no matter how much work they put into their talents, none of it matters if no one is there to watch. “I think that many students [outside of the Frost School] at UM don’t know how good the students are, who the guest lecturers are or what happens at Frost,” De Lima said. “If they knew, I’m sure they would be more present at the performances that happen here.
When there is an audience, though, the results are one of a kind.
“Jazz is more personal,” Nicol says.
“If the crowd is really good [the musicians] play better because it’s more of a conversation than playing what’s on a page.” Sprague added.
De Lima agrees that the good music created at UM can unite almost everyone.
“There’s music of quality for almost all tastes, between classical music, experimental music, jazz, big band and vocal and choir groups.”
But at the end of the day, when the curtains come down, the instruments are stashed away and the practice room doors are locked, these jazz students are like any other student at the University of Miami. “If you go to the Wellness Center, there’s a good chance you’ll see a jazz student in a hot tub or sauna, “says Nicol, drawing a laugh from Sprague. “Jazz students are chill.”
words_hyan freitas. photo_ courtesy of university of miami.