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Alcorn State student quartet takes stage each Friday night

The unmistakable resonance of a saxophone was hanging in the air on the corner of Franklin and North Union streets Friday night.

In the basement of Natchez Manor Bed and Breakfast, the Vintage Jazz Orchestra made up of Alcorn State University music students waited for their instructor Brandon Robinson to give them their cue.

The lights were low, glasses clinked and the jazz was wide open in the ultimate laboratory for three up-and-coming musicians.

Robinson, who leads the jazz ensemble, also teaches woodwinds and music theory at Alcorn State University. With a strong rhythm section, Robinson fills in on saxophone and fluctuates between colleague and instructor on Friday nights.

“In a jazz combo everyone is equal,” Robinson said. “We are four soloists, and it’s important to know what everyone feels, thinks and wants to do. We try to listen and communicate with each other through our instruments.”

In classroom rehearsals Robinson said he could see a lot of progress quickly, so he decided to find some places for the combo to play.

“I went everywhere that I could in the local area to see if anyone was interested,” Robinson said. “The Manor was the first place to step up and have us play.”

Robinson believes that the live experience is an excellent opportunity for the musicians.

“In the classroom is where we learn the lessons of jazz, and the Manor is where we put those lessons to use,” Robinson said. “I wanted this group to morph into something more than playing in rehearsals. In a live performance setting there is no where to hide.”

Brice Evans, a friend of Robinson and band director at Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, said playing in a live setting is a true professional experience for the students. Evans was a special guest artist, playing trombone with the combo Friday night.

“They are finding out what it’s like to play in the real world,” Evans said. “All the tunes they play are standard tunes. It’s a really good experience for them.”

Freshman percussion music major Tommie Green, said he had never played in a live venue before joining the ensemble.

“Jazz is like none other,” Green said. “Usually I play in the pocket, which is just keeping a beat. But with jazz, I can add my own style in whenever, as long as I’m in time, keeping rhythm. Some of this music that I’m playing here, I’m playing for the first time. They tell me what kind of feel it is, they give me music to listen to and I just add my own thing to it.”

Green said he has been drumming since preschool and wants to become a professional percussionist playing in all kinds of bands.

“I’m glad I get to be a part of this jazz combo,” Green said. “This is real jazz and I’m actually playing it.”

Junior piano performance major Vera Zholondz said playing jazz piano for an audience is a good experience for her as well.

“This is the kind of atmosphere where jazz actually was born,” Zholondz said. “I play better here than in the classroom, I think because I improvise better. The feedback from the audience helps a lot too.”

Zholondz has been part of the jazz combo since the second semester of her freshman year.

“I am a classically trained musician, so I started listening to great jazz pianists, playing it myself, and it’s very different,” Zholondz said. “You are a creator when you play jazz. You have to improvise. It’s something new every time. You take a piece of music and renovate it.”

Zholondz said she dreams of being a professor of music and also performing and playing.

“I would love to have a steady gig like this after graduation,” she said.

Zholondz said Robinson is more like a band leader than a teacher.

“The relationship is much more personal, like colleagues,” Zholondz said. “It makes you feel like a professional musician already. On the one side you’re working in a professional environment with a teacher, and on the other hand, your teacher is not treating you like a student anymore.”

Zholondz’s brother Anton, who plays bass guitar for the combo was also classically trained but didn’t start playing jazz until he was 20. Anton also plays jazz and classical violin.

“I had tried to play, but never played seriously,” Anton said. “To me, jazz is about freedom — freedom of improvisation, freedom to express yourself differently each day, because it’s not written down. Anything you want to say, you can play. Tomorrow if you’re feeling differently, you can play it differently. With classical music there is not as much freedom.”

Anton said even on the stage, they are still in the classroom.

“With every kind of music, you have to have an audience listen to you, because you’re transferring energy,” he said. “The audience feels this energy and gives it back to you. If there is no audience, there is no question or answer.”

The Vintage Jazz Orchestra plays more than 50 standard tunes from George Gershwin to John Coltrane, attracting a wide audience.

“The Vintage Jazz Orchestra has brought in a more diverse crowd, and that’s what we wanted,” said Nondrea Williams, general manager at the Natchez Manor. “Business is really starting to pick up, especially with the weather getting warmer.”

The Vintage Jazz Orchestra plays from 6 to 10 p.m. every Friday night at Natchez Manor.

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