Somewhere in Stuyvesant, amidst the sounds of frantic pencils dancing across half-crumpled paper and victorious shouts that follow the completion of difficult math problems, the Stuyvesant Jazz Combo is “be-bopping” away.
The full jazz band, directed by music teacher Gregor Winkel (known by members of the jazz band as “Mr. Cool”), gave rise to a smaller jazz combo directed by seniors Dove Barbanel, Andrew Chow and Jacob Sunshine. The jazz combo meets first period every day and has ventured outside of Stuyvesant to perform at Gracie Mansion for the retirement of Fire Chief Commissioner Nick Scarpetta and to travel to Boston for the Berklee High School Jazz Festival. In addition, they play annually at the Liberty Science Center for the Siemens Competition Finalists’ awards ceremony.
The jazz combo’s repertoire differs from that of the larger jazz band in that most of the combo’s music is improvised. Though Winkel supervises the combo, they are run fairly independently in that they pick their own set list and are allowed to practice in a different room for upcoming gigs.
“Even though Stuyvesant is not a music school, I think it attracts a number of talented musicians and jazz band is a great way of networking with people,” said Sunshine, who has played jazz guitar for five years and has been in the jazz band for four years.
Chow, who has also been in the band for four years said, “I was already into jazz piano in middle school and I had seen the Stuy jazz band once at an open house. I definitely wanted jazz to be a big part of my life in high school.”
Barbanel, who started off freshman year in the beginner band as a saxophonist, switched over to jazz band as a guitarist. In junior year, when the band’s bassist graduated, Barbanel took up bass guitar even though he’d only touched the bass a few times in the past. “I had taken classical guitar lessons for years and played around with jazz and rock guitar, and because the bass is so similar to guitar, it wasn’t too hard to get good at,” Barbanel said. “The hardest part is realizing that unlike guitar, the bass is a background instrument and that sometimes it’s good to turn the volume knob down from 11, because most people don’t want to a hear a booming bass drown out the sound from every other instrument, though I certainly do.”
Because the jazz combo recruits more advanced musicians, the players have training and experience primarily outside of school. Sunshine has been involved in a variety of rock bands as well as a jazz ensemble at the Harlem School of the Arts. In these other venues, Sunshine often finds a coherency and consistency of playing that is missing from the Stuyvesant jazz band. Chow agrees with Sunshine’s assessment. After he recently played a gig with his band “Slum Searching” at the Cornelia Café, Chow experienced a quality of playing that is not quite present in the Stuyvesant jazz band.
That’s not to say that the combo participants don’t enjoy their work. “I love playing music in Jazz Band with other people every day. It’s first period, so it’s a fantastic way to start of the day,” Chow said.
“I have met a number of good friends and close musical allies in the process. I also just love coming in every morning and bashing on the drums or jamming on my guitar. It’s a great stress release,” Sunshine said.
Both Chow and Sunshine enjoy playing solo as well as playing in the band. Chow sees the upsides to both, saying, “With solo, I have the freedom to do whatever I want with the song and I can push my boundaries. With a band, it’s great for me to lock in with the other band members and learn from other musicians.”
Sunshine described the advantages to solo playing. “With solo playing, I feel like I have a little bit more of room for interpretation, and have the freedom to improvise and embellish,” he said. I’m not bound to supporting people.” However, he much rather prefers playing in an ensemble. “Getting people in a room and having them communicate musically is a totally beautiful feeling. You get this telepathic connection as the music develops, and you start hearing whatever is being played in a totally different light,” Sunshine said.
Barbanel, a serious classical guitarist, has a different perspective than many of the other players. “Jazz and classical are pretty different in terms of approach. Classical is more regimented; you want to sit in a room for hours, weeks, months, and turn yourself into an absolute perfectionist, until absolutely every single minor detail of a piece is perfect and as beautiful as the composer intended,” Barbanel said. “To play jazz, you just listen to lots of records, play with other people, and under no circumstances read the instruction manual.”
As the Stuyvesant music department is mainly geared towards classical music, the jazz combo often does not receive the same attention that is given to the choruses, orchestras and classical bands. However, the talent that each individual member brings to the jazz combo reaches far beyond its early morning jam sessions.
“Jazz is all about the group dynamic and different members of a band building off of each other’s sound,” Barbanel said. “Playing in a group like this is great because you get all this experience and can steal lots of tricks and techniques from other members in the band while becoming more solid as a musician under the pressure of having to perform.”