The Occidental Jazz Ensemble rehearses in a circle – highly unusual for most large instrumental groups, who tend to group by section. Yet it works for this collection of students who laugh, gossip and joke at the beginning of practice. Many collaborate on new rhythms and riffs, some self-composed, with a shared musical intuition.
The man who manages to bring the cheerful chaos to order is Shawn Costantino, hired last semester as the ensemble’s new director. He is in charge of two separate jazz groups – the more structured big band and a subset combo group that is mostly student-run.
After a crowded concert at the end of last semester, he has big plans for the future. To start, he wants to prepare the group for professional recording which will allow them to enter into jazz festivals such as the world-renowned Monterey Jazz Festival.
“It’s a good barometer of the success and the health of a college, if their students are getting into things like that. It means that a group is thriving and that its students are strong,” Costantino said. “I want the Oxy Jazz Ensemble to be one of the flagship ensembles of the school.”
But preparing the band to enter festivals is just one of Costantino’s objectives. He also plans to ready the bands for more performances, both at Occidental and in the surrounding community.
In particular, Costantino wants to expand the group’s genre versatility. For example, the band is considering having a swing dance with live music and a dance lesson next semester.
According to his students, such developments are possible due to Costantino’s focus on the music. Music major Alyssa Cottle (junior) says that the band has been a positive experience ever since she began two years ago, and even more so with the arrival of Constantino.
“We see him as an authority but he’s also a friend,” Cottle said. “He’s a nice guy, and he’s very passionate about music and music education.”
“He’s easy-going, but he’s very serious about improving and being on time and playing, which is perfect,” cognitive science major Tyler Yates (sophomore) said. “It makes it fun and productive at the same time. We get to play a lot of great stuff because of that.”
However, the ensemble has met challenges because of low recruitment. Costantino attributes this to low-awareness of the organization throughout campus.
“There’s probably kids sitting in their dorm rooms right now that should be at jazz band rehearsal,” Costantino said. “They have a trombone under their bed and they’re like ‘I don’t know, I didn’t even know about it.’”
For interested students, he is still willing to accept late additions to the ensemble. According to Costantino, students can contact him if they are at all interested in joining an ensemble.