Students partake in jazz jam

From Kansas City to Eau Claire, the tradition continues

More stories from Rachel Helgeson

Ballin’ on a Budget
October 1, 2018

Photo by Rachel Helgeson

Since the opening of The Lakely in the Oxbow Hotel, the weekly Monday jazz ensembles have had the opportunity to perform in front of local audiences.

UW-Eau Claire students are partaking in a historical tradition of the jazz jam session, an intimate form of jazz, by performing weekly from 7-10 p.m on Monday nights at The Lakely in downtown Eau Claire.

The beginning-of-the-week performances are typically hosted by UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of music, Michael Shults and Jeremy Boettcher, a world-touring musician.

Each core ensemble consists of local professionals and a few of the more advanced students, usually seniors, Shults said. Later in the night, other students who attend may join the core ensemble.

The ensembles are not exclusively reserved for serious professionals or even music majors; many students are either music minors or pursue jazz as a serious hobby.

“One of the great things about music and jazz in particular is it’s a meritocracy,” Shults said. “If you can play, you can play. We’re not concerned with what your background is or where you study.”

Sam Olson, the bassist who was a part of the core ensemble last Monday, is a computer science major with a minor in music. Olson said the atmosphere at jazz jam has been positive.

“It’s fantastic that people seem like they’re into it here,” Olson said. “We get a good response from the audience.”

To play with Shults and the other serious students is “humbling,” he said.

“Being up there with them feels good,” Olson said.

Madeline Lunzer, one audience member and another UW-Eau Claire student, was not aware that the performers on stage were also students.

“They’re incredible — it’s super impressive what they can do . . . this is my first time here, and it has sparked an interest (in jazz) for me,” Lunzer said. “Maybe I’ll check out Eau Claire Jazz Fest, too.”

There is an etiquette that instrumentalists must follow while playing, Shults said.

Musicians must improvise, relying on memorized chords and melodies, and respect others’ musical space during performances.

The weekly sessions are organized using a sign-up sheet on which students may make a note of songs they have memorized. If other students have the chords and melody memorized for the same songs, they will play together.

“(This is a) chance for them to play with people who have a little bit more experience than them, in a low-pressure situation, but still in front of people,” Shults said.

Shults, an awarded saxophonist, said he learned how to play by participating in jazz sessions when he was younger.

He grew up in Kansas City, where the idea of the jazz jam session was born during the prohibition era. These sessions were an opportunity for “seasoned musicians to invite younger people to come and play to ‘cut their teeth,’ as the saying goes,” Shults said.

Shults said he seized the opportunity to grow a jazz jam session with university students when he became an assistant professor at UW-Eau Claire in the fall of 2014.

“Eau Claire has an amazing tradition in big-band jazz, the 18-piece ensembles, and are really excellent and always have been. But there really wasn’t anything for small-group jazz,” he said.

The local jam sessions became routine for the ensemble beginning in 2014 when they would play in the basement of Mogie’s Pub. When The Lakely was built in the Oxbow Hotel in late 2016, Shults moved the ensemble to the new venue with the help of UW-Eau Claire music alum Sean Carey.

Shults said although the jam sessions are typically more popular in larger cities like Chicago and New York, Eau Claire has done well in adopting and fostering this musical tradition.

“This is a really cool little pocket of culture that I think is unique in cities of this size,” Shults said.