NIU Jazz Orchestra plays train journey of sound


Eli Tecktiel

Director Reggie Thomas leads the NIU jazz orchestra. The orchestra performed Thursday at the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall. (Eli Tecktiel | Northern Star)

By Eli Tecktiel, Senior Lifestyle Writer

On Thursday, the NIU Jazz Orchestra treated audience members to a lively evening of big band and jazz music. 

Despite the event’s noticeably light attendance, the orchestra played energetically and confidently as though they were playing to a sold out crowd at Carnegie Hall.

Led by Director Reggie Thomas, who is also the head of Jazz Studies at NIU, the band took the audience on an imaginary cross country journey by train, featuring classics like “Autumn in New York” and “Take the ‘A’ Train,” the latter of which was most famously performed by Duke Ellington.

Thomas enthusiastically introduced each song, providing context and praising the composers who wrote them nearly a century ago. The background information given by Thomas set the scene for the music that followed and helped make the performances even more engaging.

The meticulously designed acoustics of Boutell Memorial Concert Hall generally worked to the advantage of the music played, however the natural reverb occasionally muddied the sound of the band, especially the piano.

Whenever I hear big band music, I somehow feel comforted by a warm sense of nostalgia for a time period I never lived in. However, the value of this type of music goes far beyond nostalgia. Unlike the many short-lived pop music phenomenons of recent decades, the jazz music of the 1930s and ‘40s has proved to have stood the test of time. 

Perhaps it’s the nature of jazz that makes these songs so timeless; each song is open to interpretation by its arrangers and performers, often leading to intriguing improvisations and unexpected twists on familiar classics.

For instance, the penultimate song in the orchestra’s set was a performance of “Take the ‘A’ Train,” one of the most popular and recognizable songs of its era. However, instead of using Ellington’s more traditional arrangement, the orchestra opted for a more recent arrangement of the song by John Clayton, which is much slower than the original and featured many unique solos throughout.

With a setlist of just eight songs, the show never overstayed its welcome, and the audience remained attentive and engaged throughout its duration.

Timothy Ryan, an English professor at NIU, was in attendance and offered extra credit to any student who came to the performance and submitted a paragraph describing their experience. 

“This semester I really wanted to encourage people to see live jazz because we have one of the best jazz programs in the nation, so it just seemed like this is something people should do,” Ryan said.

Though he initially only extended this offer to a jazz and blues class he teaches, he ultimately decided to give the opportunity to all of his students.

“I realized that in the class you’re taking – which is American Literature 1910-1960 – we kind of talk about jazz a little in there as well since it was so important in that period, so I thought ‘Hey, we can open it up to everyone,’” Ryan said.

It’s easy for musicians to simply cover songs exactly as their composers wrote them, but the NIU Jazz Orchestra brought the music of artists like Count Basie and Duke Ellington to life in a way that was fresh and original, while still faithful to the source material.