When many people hear the term "jazz orchestra," they might be a little bit confused. After all, "orchestra" usually is used to describe classical ensembles. But a group of local jazz musicians is working to change that narrative.
The Twin Cities Jazz Composers' Workshop is giving those dedicated musicians a space to push boundaries and improve their craft writing for jazz orchestras, all while coming together as a community.
It all started when musicians JC Sanford and Asuka Kakitani moved to Minneapolis from New York City, where they were part of the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop. That program brings composers together with more experienced ones who serve as mentors to the group and guide them through the writing process for the BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra. As part of the workshop, they would meet once a month to get feedback on their work and then have their compositions played by the orchestra.
When Sanford and Kakitani moved to Minnesota, they knew they wanted to create a similar program. After connecting with Twin Cities musicians Adam Meckler and Aaron Hedenstrom, they joined forces to create the Twin Cities Jazz Composers' Workshop (TCJCW).
"It's like being back in school, where we bring it in and it's kind of like a show and tell," Hedenstrom said. "We each go around, share what we have, and usually there will be a cheesy-sounding computer performance we use from our software to get the idea across.
"We'll just show each other the piece and offer feedback and suggestions of things that stick out to us, like maybe, 'You could try this,' or, 'What do you think about this?' Everyone in the group is very experienced, so the feedback is very good feedback, and there's just a lot of respect among everybody."
After each listening session, TCJCW will have a reading session, where the composers get to hear their work come alive through the workshop's modern jazz orchestra.
"I love to see how other composers are applying the things we've talked about and then also do things that don't have anything to do with what we talked about," Sanford said. "It's really cool to see one reading session where there will be a half-completed chart and then the next time it will be complete. Just to see the difference between those two, what happens and how it evolves is really cool and what it's all about for me."
Since its start in June 2017, TCJCW has grown to include two more Twin Cities composers, Dave Stamps and Kari Musil. For Musil, she had had a lot of experience writing for large jazz ensembles, winning grants and awards for her work. But although she applied to participate in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop, like Sanford and Kakitani had, she was never accepted and had trouble finding a community that shared her interest.
"There's a small pool of people out there that only write music for jazz orchestras," Musil said. "We don't arrange other people's music, and we don't play the standard big band music from the swing era. The jazz orchestra is our palette. That's what we've chosen to do and it's kind of a lonely place to be, because there aren't that many people who do it. When I found out that all six of us wanted to do the same thing, I was so happy to be a part of this group."
Being mostly self-taught and a little older than the rest of the group, Musil said that sometimes it feels as if she's looking in from the outside on how the other musicians work, because they have their own ways of doing things, but that she really appreciates the mutual respect all of the musicians in the group have for one another.
"I now have these five people that I really feel close to," she said. "Our styles are all quite different, but I feel really close to them in the music community that we have and I know they respect me and I definitely respect them. So that's something that I haven't been able to have before."
In the future, TCJCW is looking to include more musicians in the Twin Cities like Musil and become more of a mentorship program.
"The cool thing about this workshop is the diversity of experience that we have just among us," Sanford said. "Someone like Kari is in a lot of ways self-taught and she has all this experience in this area and her own unique voice. So [we'd like] more people like that. She's not young, but wants to grow and expand what she knows and what other people can offer. Age doesn't really matter; it's just more about desire and then some level of ability and experience of actually writing."
Each member of TCJCW will present a composition on Sunday, July 15, as part of the All Originals Jazz Series at Studio Z in St. Paul. Most of the proceeds from the concert, combined with funds from a recent Kickstarter campaign, will go toward paying the musicians in the modern jazz orchestra, who have worked with the composers for free. After the concert, there will be a community meeting, where audience members can find out how they can get involved with TCJCW.
"It is going to be our first concert performing with this particular organization," Hedenstrom said. "And that's exciting, because in a lot of ways, when you perform this in public, it legitimizes or solidifies your mission as an organization. It's kind of like a year-end celebration of all the work we've done the cool opportunities we've begun to work on and it's going to feature amazing Twin Cities musicians playing the music, so that's exciting.
"No one has ever heard these pieces, so its six brand new pieces, which is really exciting too. They're all very stylistically diverse, and I think that's going to be an exciting thing just to see how six different composers take the same instrumentation and yet come up with such different results."