Spotlight on Grinnell Jazz Ensemble


Ohana Sarvotham

Jan Gloor `24, Jacob Heinrich `24 and Abigail Davison `26 work together on a tune in Jazz Ensemble.

Oliver Wolfe, Staff Writer

63 years ago, jazz legend Herbie Hancock graduated from Grinnell College. Today, his legacy is continued by the Grinnell Jazz Ensemble.

The group, made up of 12 students, practices twice a week for a total of four hours. It is directed by Professor Mark Laver, music, who began his work with the ensemble in 2014.

However, Laver does not fit the stereotypical image of a band director, standing on a pedestal and waving his baton, nor does he mercilessly rule over his band like J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash”. Rather, Laver acts like a part of the gang — he jumps right in and plays his saxophone along with the students, he cheers and hollers after a sweet solo and once they conclude a number they have been working on, he opens the floor to discussion, asking everyone what they did well and what they could improve on.

The Grinnell Jazz Ensemble takes a unique approach to learning their music — instead of reading sheet music, the group often opts to learn their music by ear. Laver said that while this strategy is more difficult, it pays off in the long run.

He said that learning by ear gives the players a better understanding of the piece as a whole. “The students know all of each other’s parts, so we all know the bass part, and we all know what the piano player is playing.”

Laver believes that this improves the group’s musical capabilities, but it also strengthens their communication skills. “Whether we’re improvising together without structure or whether we’re playing an arrangement that we’ve come up with together, we’re always trying to listen, listen for one another,” said Laver. “It’s a way of using music to practice empathy.”

This empathetic approach to learning music also translates to a welcoming and supportive environment among players. “I’ve been in playing situations where I feel very afraid of making mistakes,” said Laver. “I want to make space for people to make those mistakes and to feel safe in taking risks.”

I want to make space for people to make those mistakes and to feel safe taking risks.

— Mark Laver, Grinnell Jazz Ensemble Director and Associate Professor of Music

The students agree — “It’s really welcoming and open during rehearsal,” said Frannie Crego `25, newcomer to the group. “Everyone feels comfortable just shouting out a random idea, and that’s a nice space to be in.”

This sentiment was echoed by a veteran member of the ensemble, electric bass player Kaitlin Michaels `23.

“It’s a friendly energy,” said Michaels. “If you make a mistake, it’s not really a big deal because you’re learning and you’re trying to get better as a musician and be creative.”

If you want to experience first hand the fast-paced, improvised and empathetic music of the Grinnell Jazz Ensemble, they are preparing an upcoming Mardi Gras-themed concert open to the public. “It will have super fun energy,” Crego said, encouraging students to come and enjoy the music.

The concert will take place on Saturday, Feb. 25 from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. in Sebring-Lewis Hall in the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts.