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Improvising a Jazz Life

Taking a musical road less traveled, a young woman discovers the power of her own voice and its place in the group.

Allie Bosso performing at the Kennedy Center in February 2006. She and the members of the Oberlin Jazz Septet were among a contingent of Oberlin students who performed there as part of the center’s prestigious Conservatory Project series. Oberlin students also participated in the 2005 series, when their performances prompted Washington Post music critic Daniel Ginsberg to note that they “showed why the [Oberlin Conservatory] is such a national treasure ... .”

I grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut. The only jazz I remember in my house was the Broadway album of Fats Waller’s Ain’t Misbehavin’. With no musical elders to guide me, I discovered my first jazz influences on my own. I heard Billie Holiday on the radio, wanted to hear more, and spent my allowance on all the cassettes I could find in the back of Sam Goody.

By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I knew I was a jazz musician. I had been playing trombone for about six years, was in the high school band, and jammed in a small ensemble with my brother Louie, who played the trumpet. By playing the trombone, I was attempting to prove that a girl could do what a guy could do. Because trombone players are rare in small ensembles, I found myself the youngest and least experienced musician in our high school jazz ensemble, which was scheduled to perform at the University of New Hampshire Jazz Festival.

The day of our performance, I stood in front of the judges, in the shadow of my brother and his peers—shoulder to shoulder with older boys who didn’t think I had a right to be there. The tempo was cast and we began the song, Charlie Parker’s Relaxin’ at Camarillo. The force of the bass came up from the floor, through my feet, through my body, and out of my head. Orbits of energy reeled around and through me, through my arms and my heart.

I was the first to solo. I just shut my eyes and blew.

Power, adrenaline, and the shocking strength of my own voice were all I could feel. Everything was dark except for that sound, amplified from my horn to the back of the room. I was really playing. All of the mysteries of jazz opened up in front of me. When my solo was over, I dropped back into the room, opened my eyes, came back to my body, and looked at my group.

They stared back in amazement.

Finding My Mentors

After a time, my listening gravitated to such giants as Billy Hart and Gary Bartz [Oberlin’s Assistant Professor of Jazz Percussion and Visiting Professor of Jazz Saxophone, respectively], and Robin Eubanks. I first heard Robin one morning on the way to school; my brother had the radio tuned to NPR, and they were featuring the Dave Holland Quintet. Robin, the trombonist, was playing one of his compositions, Metamorphos. This was the first time a trombone sounded cool to me.

I bought all the Dave Holland I could get and listened to it all the time. I e-mailed Robin a fan letter through his web site and was surprised when he wrote back to thank me. He advised me to keep up my work on the trombone. “We need more trombone players in the world,” he wrote.

My senior year, when I asked a band director where I should study music, he suggested Oberlin. When I visited Oberlin’s web site and saw that Robin taught here—he is an Associate Professor—I knew this was the place for me. My father had encouraged me to make a demo CD to send to prospective teachers. I sent one to Robin and, after hearing about Oberlin’s program, decided to audition.

Robin is a direct descendent of J.J. Johnson, who transformed the trombone from a textural instrument to one of virtuosity. Johnson taught Slide Hampton, who taught Robin. With additional influences as eclectic as McCoy Tyner and Jimi Hendrix, Robin has created a new sound—metrically complex compositions with melodies that retain his musical roots. That is what I strive for in my playing: technical facility on the horn, knowledge of the tradition, and yet something to offer that is new, fresh, and my own.

If Robin is my mentor, then Wendell Logan is my sage. Professor of African American Music and Chair of the jazz program, he is a great role model, epitomizing what jazz is really about and defying its negative stereotypes. An incredible composer, he has been commissioned to write classical as well as jazz music, and he created a curriculum for jazz at the Conservatory where there had been none. With his compassion and integrity, he stands as our most important teacher, and the jazz program grows through his example. He is always reminding us, “We are a family. We have to act like one and support one another.”

The Whole, the Sum, and Its Parts

In fall 2005, the jazz faculty nominated the new members of the Oberlin Jazz Septet (OJS), which is directed by Professor of Jazz Studies and Double Bass Peter Dominguez. Learning that I was chosen was a joyous moment for me—it’s a huge honor—but I was aware that the expectations were high. I would have to exceed my own standards and those of my teachers and peers.

Our first OJS performance was a concert during new-student orientation. We had only three days of concentrated, collaborative rehearsals before the concert. Even though we didn’t know if we would sound like a cohesive group, we were enthusiastic about playing together—working with musicians who are intellectually challenging forces you out of your comfort zone into something unknown but filled with potential. To help us prepare, trumpeter Theodore Croker ’07 brought in a recording of Thelonious Monk’s Green Chimneys, and we worked it out from there.

Our rhythm section was solid. Drummer Charlie Foldesh ’07 and double bassist Curtis Ostle ’06 really laid down the groove and swung hard. With that kind of foundation, the rest of us had to worry only about our improvisational skills. At first I questioned whether I could hang with this, if it was too fast for me.

Theo held down the melody: deliberate, clear, and really swinging. Saxophonist Johnny Butler ’06 was textural, making satirical jests through counterpoint, or sometimes instigating a call-and-answer relationship with Theo. I was textural as well, making embellishments of the melody and growling in the tailgate tradition of New Orleans.

The group had one concern: could two harmonic instruments fit together in the septet? Andrew Conklin ’06, our guitarist, and Sullivan Fortner ’08, our pianist, are both versatile musicians; each has enough experience to avoid playing over each other or crowding the other instrumentalists. The respect they have for the other and for the group soon became apparent, and they came to work so well together that the effects exceeded our expectations—songs became so harmonically versatile that every option imaginable was open to a soloist. I could play in a pentatonic scale or move ahead completely free of the changes, and neither Sullivan nor Andrew would leave me stranded, standing alone to the audience.

By the time of our first performance, we were playing as though we belonged together, and, as the year progressed, I learned more about how vital each member’s unique contributions are to the septet as a whole.

The Oberlin Jazz Septet at the Kennedy Center. From left: Sullivan Fortner, piano; Allie Bosso, trombone; Curtis Ostle, double bass; Theo Croker, trumpet; Johnny Butler, saxophone; Charlie Foldesh, drums; and Andrew Conklin, guitar.

Johnny’s complex compositions—sometimes satirical and political, sometimes emotional—reflect his intelligence and unpredictability. Andrew’s experiences in free jazz and his good heart created space in the group for all of us to develop. Theo grew up around the music; he is the grandson of the legendary trumpet player Doc Cheatham. His connections in the jazz world made it easier for us to navigate. For Charlie, there is no such thing as too much or too good when it comes to life, and he is just as passionate about music. He was our motivator and bound us together.

Sullivan’s playing is so virtuosic that the horn players found they could leave him alone on stage for seven minutes while they took a break. His humanity really opened us all to each other. Curtis comes from a family of musicians. His intelligence is apparent in both his words and his playing.

Playing to the Audience

Our performance responsibilities also deepened and grew as the year progressed. We were selected to play for Oberlin’s Board of Trustees at a dinner in October 2005. Two months later, trustee Stewart Kohl ’77 and his wife, Donna, announced their $5 million gift to fund construction of a new facility for the Jazz Studies Program. [For more information about the Kohls’ gift and plans for the new facility, see “Jazz Gets a New Home.”]

In January, the OJS left Oberlin for a winter-term tour, traveling to seven cities throughout the East and Southeast and playing in numerous jazz clubs and at schools. Walking into a different gig every day has advantages and disadvantages. The first thing I look at is the crowd. You have to size it up to understand how to communicate, how to turn them on to you and to your musical interpretations. Every member of the OJS works toward the same goal. We want to make a statement and let our energy empower the audience.

We set up for the first gig—in a small, brick-walled club in Richmond, Virginia—and played to our best physical and mental capacity. The energy coming from the audience propelled us to play, to swing harder, to give ourselves over entirely to the music, to each other, and to the crowd.

I think we agreed the Richmond concert was our best performance because it represented our journey together. We didn’t have doubts anymore. We explored new territory during that performance and transitioned into a progressive, professional group.

The Zen of Jazz

I have an intimate relationship with jazz. It touched me when I was young and kept me out of trouble. It helped me learn about prejudice and has opened my perspective more than any other art form could. My parents, the most supportive people in my life, have stood by my decision to become a professional musician, to become a jazz musician.

I came to Oberlin looking for a teacher. I found that—and so much more. I found a family that I love and respect deeply.

Looking out for one another is at the heart of the OJS. During our winter-term tour, for instance, our schedule was hectic; we sometimes performed six hours a day, and that didn’t include our travel time. We paid close attention to each other on and off the stage, the way a family would do. The way Wendell Logan would want us to do. We are a family. Act like one. Support one another.

Allie Bosso, a jazz studies performance major, has performed at numerous venues, including the Kennedy Center (with the OJS), Lincoln Center, Litchfield Jazz Festival, and the White House.

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