KINGSTON, R.I. – July 31, 2023 – Seven students from the University of Rhode Island jazz program will get the full experience of performing at this year’s Newport Jazz Festival. The students will play all three days at the festival, Aug. 4-6, from 1:15 to 1:40 p.m. on the Foundation Stage, near the Fort Stage.
“Newport Jazz is a world-renowned jazz festival,” said Atla DeChamplain, professor of amplified voice who has helped advise the students for the Newport shows. “Numerous performances have been recorded live at the festival over the years and our students and professional musicians alike still enjoy and study the music. Being connected to this lineage while performing for dedicated jazz audiences is a tremendous opportunity for our students.”
The URI Big Band has played the jazz festival numerous times, most recently in 2019, part of a seven-year run at the iconic festival that has hosted scores of jazz legends since the 1950s.
Fernando Marzan, a second-year graduate student in jazz performance, was a member of the Big Band when it last played Newport. Growing up in Providence, he attended the festival a couple of time and remembers watching musicians such as Branford Marsalis playing at the festival on YouTube.
“How do you formulate into words what it means to play at Newport? It’s in the air. You walk in and it’s like magic. As cheesy as it sounds, it really is,” said Marzan, who plays alto saxophone. “It’s definitely scary to play there because of what the festival means but it’s also exciting and amazing at the same time.”
Marzan will be joined in Newport by fellow jazz students Mason Tucker, Wyatt Crosby, Andrew Dyson, Luis Nunez, Jude LaRoche and Ricki Rizzo, all members of the URI Big Band.
Rizzo, a junior majoring in jazz vocal performance, says this is a huge opportunity. Along with performing before hundreds, the students will be able to spend the three days soaking up the music of world-class musicians, and maybe meeting some of them.
“We are being given the chance to perform at something that is historic, with people who have made music history,” said Rizzo of Lynbrook, New York. “This is my first time going to Newport and I get to not only perform but to also take in from people who are professionals. I feel like being immersed in that way you learn so much more.”
“I know it’s one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world. There’s a lot of famous people playing the festival like Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride and many others. I’m really excited and hopefully I can meet either of them at the festival,” said Tucker, a junior majoring in jazz performance from Marion, Massachusetts. “This gig is going to be three days in a row. It’s going to be tiring. But we will all get to experience what we’ll be doing in the future.”
The students have put together a 25-minute set that will feature four or five jazz standards and songs from the Great American Songbook, including McBride’s “The Shade of the Cedar Tree,” Wayne Shorter’s “Yes or No,” Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” and Billy Eckstine’s “I Want to Talk About You.”
“Each song is arranged to feature a different musician in the band,” DeChamplain said. “It’s been amazing to witness the students step up as leaders and still maintain the collaborative spirit that is foundational in jazz.”
Backed by the rhythm section of Tucker on piano, Dyson on drums and Crosby on bass, Nunez, a second-year graduate student in jazz trombone performance from Miami, will solo on the McBride standard. He chose it part because McBride is artistic director of the festival. “I was thinking Christian plays the festival all the time. It’s probably good to play a tune of his,” said Nunez. “It’s a really hip tune. It’s got a great melody. It just feels good to play.”
Looking for a challenge, Marzan chose to solo on “Yes or No.” And Rizzo will sing the iconic “Sunny,” a song she performed in the spring with the Big Band, except in a faster tempo before it slows down in the last chorus, she says.
On tenor saxophone, LaRoche, a junior majoring in jazz performance, will solo with the rhythm section on “I Want to Talk About You,” which has been covered by such greats as John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. “Being such a historic and iconic venue for jazz, it’s an incredible opportunity to be added to the lineage of performers who’ve played there,” said LaRoche, who lives in South Kingstown. “I chose the tune because it’s one I’ve loved for a long time and haven’t a chance to really play. There’s also a great Newport performance of it by Coltrane.”
While DeChamplain and Emmett Goods, head of the jazz program and director of the Big Band, have advised the students as they’ve prepared, much of the organizational work has been taken up by the students – choosing a set list, scheduling rehearsals and dealing with other logistics.
“Dr. Goods joined us the other day to sit in, but for the most part, we’ve been playing for each other and giving each other some good advice about things we’re hearing and maybe things the performer isn’t hearing in the moment,” said Marzan. “We’re making sure we put our best foot forward.”
Whether it’s playing Newport or a Fourth of July block party with friends and family in Pawtucket, Dyson says it all part of training to be a musician.
“I think I can speak for everyone,” said Dyson, a senior majoring in music education. “I’m never away from music. Every day, it’s something. I’m either listening to it or if I’m sitting around, I’ll pick up my practice pad and start working on certain songs. It’s always around.”