This photo essay and text about the work of the University of Illinois Jazz big band was a semester project for "223 Photojournalism", a class of the UIUC's department of journalism that I took during my university year abroad as exchange student in the US back in 1996/1997:


Where Jazz comes Alive

Urbana-Champaign, USA - Spring 1997

Story and Photos by Erik Tham

"Hold on…that's too hard," shouts Thomas Wirtel, leader of the UI Jazz Band I. The instruments of his twenty students grow silent. "Let's do it again from 332. One, two,…," he counts to urge on one of Urbana-Champaign's finest Jazz Bands.

The students have come together in the dark band practicing room in the basement of Smith Hall to attend what the timetable matter-of-factly lists as "MUSIC 266, Jazz Band," but they are not here for the one credit hour the course officially offers but for the fun and experience of doing great jazz music together.

Thomas Wirtel, head of the jazz department, has been leading the first and best of the four UI Jazz Bands for two years and writes most of the pieces and arrangements the band plays. Band members, too, are invited to contribute their own ideas. "We'd like to do mostly original stuff written by people in the band or people who taught at the U of I or somebody who used to be here," Wirtel said, "although we also play some Basie stuff and Ellington stuff. But first of all, we try to establish a kind of UI-style." This is done by encouraging people to write "special music for this band". This music is at an equal high level as the band itself and some of these pieces have even been published and now are played by other bands. "We have a big library," Wirtel proudly mentions, pointing towards a large filing case standing at one wall of his office. "About six filing cases full of stuff."

The people who are playing in this band are by no means exclusively music majors: About half of them come from other departments like engineering, philosophy or geography. "The jazz bands are open to any student enrolled in any class at the university." Wirtel said, "We also have two older guys working for the university in the band who don't take the band work for credits."

Nevertheless, it is not easy to become a member of one of the UI Jazz Bands I to IV. To find replacements for members who graduated from the university or who don't have the time to participate any longer, there is an audition at the beginning of each semester. The decision about who is going to play in any of the bands is made by the band leaders. But the chances of being selected are limited: last semester the four jazz bands could take only seven new members, three of them in Jazz Band I.

The requirements are high, especially for the first and top band. Not only is perfect mastery of the instrument a must but also the willingness to spend a great deal of time with it. "Four hours of rehearsal, preparation, all that concert stuff we do… it's a lot of time," Wirtel said, "but that's the way with all the ensembles in the music department. You spend much more time than the amount of credit you get. In a way it's like doing an apprenticeship, when you're going to banking and part of your classwork was to work in that bank five for hours a week…it's a kind of like that," Wirtel said, "except that here we supply the bank," he adds laughing and estimates, that about 25 percent of his present band members are going to become professional musicians.

One of those who might make it is Rob Levitt who has been playing saxophone since the fifth grade. "When I've time, I practice four hours per day," he said, but the UI Jazz Band is not the only band in which he plays. "Many of the band members play in several bands," he said. The band's concert work mostly consists of smaller sessions in bars like the "City of New Orleans," where different combos of all four UI Jazz Bands play almost every Monday night. Other places like the "Blind Pig" in Champaign also have concerts. Several times a year, the Jazz Band I also does concerts and all day clinics at high schools to play and practice together with different high school bands.

The extraordinary quality of this band can be heard in concert at the Krannert Center at the end of every semester. This semester's concert of the UI Jazz Band I is scheduled for May 3, 8pm.

(c) Erik Tham