Men of Lewis and Churchill: bringing jazz to TKC

Men of the Houses of C.S. Lewis and Winston Churchill formed their own jazz band, the TKC Jazz Combo, augmenting school-wide interest in jazz music. TKC Jazz Combo. photo credit Stephen Berry.

The band started spontaneously at the beginning of Spring semester. Dan Kemp invited Spencer Kashmanian and Stephen Berry to play, and from there they recruited guitarist Alex Ellis and bassist Fisher Derderian. Both Kashmanian and Berry play the piano, and Kemp keeps time on the drums.

"We just started talking about jazz after going to a couple of jazz clubs, and we really wanted to get together and jam," Berry said. In early February, Berry took the initiative of borrowing instruments and equipment from The Tent and reserving rooms where he and his friends could practice. He ran with the responsibility, forgoing the piano, and adopting the role of band manager.

After its first few practices, the band launched a search for its missing ingredient: someone who could play a brass instrument. Enter Alex Price, on trumpet.

Most of the members have had prior experience playing with a band (jazz or otherwise). Kashmanian, who is classically trained on the piano, said the whole thing has been a learning experience.

The jazz band debuted at TKC’s Open Mike Night during Interregnum IX, easily claiming the title of crowd favorite for the night. The audience was very receptive, clapping and dancing along. The band was pleasantly surprised by the positive response.

“Our mission statement now is 'To bring Jazz to TKC,'” Berry said. He was surprised to find that King’s did not have an orchestra, or a band of any kind. Next year, the band hopes to fulfill their mission by creating an official TKC club and recruiting more brass instrumentalists.

“There is a lot of emotion that goes into playing jazz,” Berry said. He loves the element of freedom he finds in the music. The genre allows for improvisation, and the musicians always look like they are having a great time together on the stage. Kemp said he appreciates the “mix between trained skill and freedom.”

Jazz demands a learning-the-rules-in-order-to-break-them approach. Kemp likes the movement of soloing, then going back to melodies and improvising. "To be able to look at a melody from different angles is exciting--like changing the timing, which changes the song entirely," Kemp said.

When it comes to choosing songs, the guys throw out suggestions and go with what works. They find lead sheets on the Internet, play the chorus together and then take turns soloing to get the feel of a song. Right now, their favorite songs are “Blue Bossa” by Joe Hendeson, “Blue Monk,” by Thelonius Monk, “All the Things You Know” by Blue Judy and “Autumn Leaves,” an old French song. "We are going for that type of music you hear when you walk into Starbucks," Kemp said.

TKC Jazz Combo at Spring Formal. photo credit Stephen Berry.

The genre of Jazz has a large following in New York City, with numerous jazz clubs like Blue Note Jazz Club and Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center. Sometimes after late night sessions, some of the TKC Jazz Combo musicians will stay late and talk to the musicians.

After Open Mike Night, the band was approached by Josh Hansen, assistant director for the TKC Theater play, The Importance of Being Earnest, about playing for the production. Hansen, who is good friends with the members of the band, thought it would work really well with the theme and bring a new element. The play ran for the past two weekends.

Recently, the band played for the first hour at TKC's Spring Formal at the Bowery Hotel, prompting several people to begin swing dancing. It has also booked a donor event outside the school and are looking to play in cigar lounges throughout the city. Berry said the band charges low prices for King's events as part of its effort to fulfill its mission of exposing the King's community to more jazz.

"To this day, people approach us saying they are looking forward to hearing us play. We’re booking events and figuring things out for the future,” Kashmanian said.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article did not indicate that one member is from the House of Churchill. The Tribune regrets the oversight.