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The City Journals

Westminster jazz ensemble ends the year on a high note

May 15, 2018 10:55AM ● By Spencer Belnap

The band brings the tunes on May 10 at the Gallivan Center. (Spencer W. Belnap/City Journals)

By Spencer W. Belnap | [email protected] 

Sugar House’s Westminster College is an academic breeding ground for some fine artistic and musical talent. The private liberal arts college’s jazz ensemble band had a couple big performances in May to close out the school year. The student jazz band played at the Westminster campus’ Vieve Gore Concert Hall on May 1, and the following week downtown at the Gallivan Center on May 10. The public shows were a culmination of the work the students and Director David Halliday had been putting in since the beginning of the year. 

“I try to run the band like a professional group,” Halliday said, now in his ninth year at Westminster, and recently named Director of Jazz and Popular Music Studies. “Outside of the music, I teach things like self love, presentation, and improvisation. The personnel and instrumentation changes every year, sometimes we have vocals, sometimes maybe a couple trombones and no trumpet for instance. It varies. I started a fun process and tradition a few semesters back where I arrange music for that specific group.”

At the beginning of the semester, Halliday asks all the jazz ensemble students to nominate two songs he or she would like to play that term. The group spends one class listening to all the nominated songs, and then they vote for his or her five favorites. The songs with the most votes become that semester’s program, and Halliday begins arranging them for the band. Not just more traditional jazz songs, but an eclectic mix that could include anything from indie pop to movie soundtracks and New Orleans funk. Songs performed range from better-known tracks such as “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, to an uncommon funky track called “The Block” by Too Many Zooz. 

“If I’m going to arrange music for that year’s specific group, why not just ask them what they want to play,” Halliday said. “It gets them more invested, more on a personal level. The concerts are a genuine reflection of them.”

At each of the two May performances, the energy of the group was palpable. Halliday directed and occasionally joined on his alto sax at the Gore Hall concert, introducing each song beforehand. He joined the band for the entire Gallivan Center performance, which featured a slightly different lineup than the prior week. There was banter amongst students and their teacher, and plenty of smiles and laughs. Many band members are not music majors and select jazz ensemble as an elective to maintain their instrument playing, or just for fun. 

Native Salt Lake resident and first-year student Davis Kahler plays baritone saxophone for the band and is an aviation flight operations major. He’s been playing the sax for eight years, with the past five being more focused on baritone.  

“I played through high school and wanted to keep it going in college,” Kahler said. “The first year of ensemble was phenomenal. It was a privilege to play with such a talented group of musicians, and the whole experience was made better under the direction of David.” 

In addition to the alto and baritone sax, the ensemble included a trumpet, guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, tenor sax, and two or three vocalists. The dozen musicians each had at least one solo at some point during the concerts, allowing for their individual talents to truly shine through at moments. 

Freshman and bass player Robert Rehermann echoed what his bandmate Kahler said and plans on returning to the jazz ensemble each year until he graduates. “Being able to meet so many amazing musicians and having the opportunities to perform with them was incredible,” Rehermann said.  

Most of this year’s ensemble will return next year, but some will have to opt for other alternatives or may not be able to fit it into their schedules. Westminster is building a new music facility on campus, and Halliday is heavily involved with building the music major programs and various emphases. 

“It’ll be a new year, some new kids, very exciting,” Halliday said. “Music is very much a word-of-mouth business, so hopefully more and more people will ask us to play.”