Baylor School of Music’s String Jazz Quartet strings into action

Jazz Quartet practicing in the Glennis McCrary Music Building led by Mr. Alex Parker. By Kenneth Prabhakar | Photographer

By Erianne Lewis | Arts and Life Editor

The Baylor School of Music’s Jazz Quartet is back in full swing after nearly 10 years of its absence. Last week, the group, consisting of a cello, viola and two violin players, met for the first time with their instructor to discuss plans for the semesters.

McKinney junior Katie Cox spearheaded the return of the quartet after stumbling across the course on the music school’s website, which didn’t have a lot of information. So, Cox said she reached out to Alex Parker, senior lecturer and director of jazz studies.

Toward the beginning of Parker’s career at Baylor, nearly 22 years ago, a student knocked at his door inquiring about jazz that could be performed with string instruments.

Parker mentioned a few professional jazz string quartets like the Turtle Island Quartet and days later the student returned with three more people. Thus, a string jazz quartet was born.

There were a few tunes out there that the group could perform, but Parker arranged most of the music. The quartet lasted for around eight or nine years until one year when all the members graduated at once.

“I started asking around, seeing if my friends wanted to do it, and I found the group we have now,” Cox said. “It kind of just took off from there.”

The Jazz Quartet course counts towards one of the six required semesters of Chamber Music credits for music majors. Typically, a chamber music credit is classical-based consisting of composers like Mozart, Brahms and Haydn, but this course is focused on rearranging jazz standards to fit their string quartet.

“A lot of people don’t realize that jazz is very flexible, so in that way we are making this jazz our own,” Waco sophomore Gina Gravagne said. “We’re taking these jazz standards that have been performed by so many people over so many years and we are transforming them to meet our needs in our quartet.”

The quartet will meet once a week with Parker, in a chamber group coaching, but they are expected to practice at least weekly outside of the class as well.

Gravagne, a viola performer, said she has been playing since she was three years old. This is mostly unheard of since most viola players start with playing the violin.

“I grew up in a family who loves jazz,” Gravagne said. “My dad played some jazz, classical type mix things. He was a pianist when I was younger, and we would listen to a lot of jazz. My grandma is a jazz pianist, and my grandpa plays jazz bass guitar.”

Gravagne said she is looking forward to playing in a jazz quartet, as her instrument the viola isn’t normally found in a jazz ensemble.

“I’m actually really excited just about this class in general to be able to play those jazz standards that I wouldn’t be able to play if I didn’t have a quartet,” Gravagne said.

Houston senior Annabel Choi, violin player, said she is looking forward to playing ensemble music of a different genre than she is used to.

“I’m a classically trained violist, I grew up using the Suzuki method in my private lessons,” Choi said. “I continued that classical musical study in my private study here at Baylor. I’m actually taking this Intro to Jazz Improvisation class right now, at the same time, just so I can understand how [to] play jazz and how to play an improv solo.”

The group is working toward a performance at the end of the semester. More details will come as the semester progresses, but it will be open to Baylor students and the public.

“I’m very excited and I hope that other musicians and non-musicians, people that just like music, maybe jazz music, will come watch our performance at the end of the semester,” Choi said.

Some of the pieces that they have on their performance list include: “It Don’t Mean a Thing” by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills arranged by Alex Parker, “African Skies by Michael Brecker and arranged by Alex Parker and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” by Dave Brubeck and arranged by Jeremy Cohen.

Gravagne said ideally the course will continue for many years to come.

“If we can find other students in the school of music, who want to keep the program going, then we will definitely make it a reoccurring thing,” Gravagne said. “Jazz is particularly a thing that you have to want to do. You can’t force jazz; it’s not going to come that way.”

Arlington junior Maslin Markle, a cello player, said after watching a YouTube video of a cello quartet playing the “Game of Thrones” theme song, she was led to the cello.

Markle said she has never done proper chamber, but she has experience playing in a small ensemble. During middle school, she played jazz on the electric guitar and the bassoon, but never in a string instrument format, Markle said.

“Anything that we know for our traditional techniques, we are kind of throwing it out the door and trying to adapt to better match the jazz style,” Markle said.

Cox grew up on jazz tunes like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I’m Beginning to see the Light” and would play them at retirement homes. The string quartet is a new setting for her and will be something different for the school of music, which she is excited for, Cox said.

“With a bunch of changes going around in the school of music, it’s cool to kind of introduce something new with it as well, a fresh vibe,” Cox said.