NIU Jazz Orchestra hold second concert, prepare for jazz championship


Nick Glover

The NIU Jazz Orchestra held their second concert of the semester on Nov. 17 in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall at the Music Building. (Nick Glover | Northern Star)

By Nick Glover, Lifestyle Editor

The NIU Jazz Orchestra held its second concert this semester on Nov. 17 in preparation for the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship that the group was invited to participate in.

The Rudin Championship is an invitational competition that Jazz at Lincoln Center hosts. Every year, ten college bands across America are selected to perform in the championship in New York City. 

The Jazz Orchestra, led by music professor Reggie Thomas, was selected to take part in the competition this year. 

However, this concert was not just preparation for the Rudin Championship. 


From the second half of the concert on, Jason Swagler, a director of jazz studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, was a featured guest artist. 

Swagler, who studied under Thomas, brought a couple of songs for the NIU band to play and even had an impromptu jam session with Thomas on stage. 

Swagler brought the band two songs: “Vibrations in Blue” by Joey DeFrancesco and “Baby Carrots” by Jacob Mann Big Band. 

On these two songs, Swagler’s saxophone sounded full and bluesy, almost like David Sanborn’s older and more funk-inspired work. 

“I feel privileged,” Swagler said. “They were a tight band. The band sounds great, and everybody is working hard.”

Swagler’s feelings toward the band were not unearned. 


The band came out roaring on “Corner Pocket (Until I Met You)” by Freddie Green and did not let their frenetic energy stop.

The highlight of this band is its rhythm section. The drums mesh well with the bass and the band morphs their sound to fit the basis made by the drums and the bass.

Pianist Austyn Menk and guitarist Jackson Wheeler add flavor to this foundation – Menk’s piano is sparse and well-timed, and Wheeler’s guitar is rhythmic and precise. 

“I think we’re on track for the competition in January,” said lead trumpet Calvin Horsley.

It was clear the band still knew they had some work to do if they wanted to be competitive in January at the Rudin competition.

“As a section, we can pay more attention to details,” said lead alto saxophonist Evon Sams.

Sams’ beliefs were shared throughout the band.

“We have learned the tunes to a certain degree,” Menk said. “We have a lot of detail work to do. We need to ask, ‘what do I need to do right now so that the ensemble sounds as good as it can?’ We need to listen more.” 

Menk has taken over the role of the spiritual leader of the band. 


After the show, Menk was seen saying “hi” or “thanks for coming” to every person he saw backstage. Menk was so conversational, there were multiple people muttering about  “President Menk.” 

“Music is a narrative form,” Menk said. “The story we’re gonna be telling is ‘this is us.’” 

Menk said he loves the music, the band and the story they are telling.

“I’m having the time of my life,” Menk said.

The band often struggled on being intentional with decisions and matching sounds throughout sections. 

The band’s next concert will be a concert in tandem with the NIU choral program at the​​ 24th Annual Holiday Choral Concert at 3 p.m. on Dec. 4. The concert will be in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall in the Music Building, and tickets will be free for NIU students, cost $7 for non-NIU students and $10 for the general public.