By Carolyn Mooney
In the intense and closely knit world of college jazz, campus bands often make CD’s—but rarely do students compose or arrange 100 percent of the music.
But the University of Illinois Concert Jazz Band has just released a double CD of music entirely written or arranged by students. “The whole thing was done in-house,” says Chip McNeill, chairman of jazz studies at the School of Music on the Urbana-Champaign campus. Eleven of the 17 tracks on Freeplay were composed by students in last year’s band, and the rest are student arrangements.
Scott Ninmer, now a senior, was especially prolific: He wrote five of the tunes and arranged two more, including the opening track, “If I Only Had Seven Giant Brains.” (You’ll recognize the scarecrow’s theme from The Wizard of Oz.) A trombonist from Taylorville, Ill., Ninmer began playing jazz back in middle school. His earliest inspiration came from his dad, a trumpet player who has done some composing, and his mom, who first taught him piano. More recent influences are Jim Pugh, Ninmer’s trombone teacher and composition professor at Illinois, and the composer and conductor Bob Brookmeyer.
“I normally just sit down at the piano and start noodling around,” Ninmer says. “I’ll come up with something I like and try to work from there.” He then switches to a computer program that provides the “voices” of different instruments. His favorite composition is “Looking Back,” the last piece on the second CD. “I used what I think were a lot of cool orchestrational colors,” he says.
Illinois has about 80 jazz majors, including undergraduates as well as master’s and doctoral students. They typically play in several ensembles at a time, perform regularly, attend campus jazz festivals, help recruit high-school students at special events, and practice daily on top of that. There are 18 different jazz groups on campus, among them the 19-member Concert Jazz Band, a Latin jazz band, and many smaller ensembles. A few years ago the concert band won the top prize at a prestigious festival held at the University of North Texas, itself a long-time powerhouse of college jazz.
McNeill, the concert band’s leader and the former musical director for the jazz musician Arturo Sandoval, studied at North Texas before graduating from the University of Miami (yet another college-jazz powerhouse). He has seen the jazz program evolve at Illinois since he started it nine years ago. “There’s plenty of music here,” he says.
To catch the band performing a song from its new CD at the Iron Post, an Urbana, Ill. bar, check out this YouTube clip:
You can buy the CD ($20) through McNeill, at chipmc[at]illinois.edu.