Baylor professors swing to beat other than studies, perform in local quartets

Baylor students playing jazz music in a quartet. Ken Prabhakar | Photographer

By Caitlyn Beebe | Reporter

When they’re not in the classroom, Baylor professors from diverse academic backgrounds are pursuing their shared passion for jazz music by performing in quartets.

The Waco Early Jazz Quartet comprises Dr. Theresa Kennedy, professor of French and director of women’s and gender studies; Dr. Alex Thiltges, senior lecturer in French; Dr. Simon Burris, senior lecturer in classics; and Dr. Bob Kane, professor of chemistry and biochemistry. The group performs at the Valley Mills Vineyards and the Waco Downtown Farmers Market.

Kennedy, who sings in the quartet, said singing jazz is very different from singing classically because it is “a little bit messy.” However, she said she can experiment and learn by ear which notes work best — a method of improvisation and trial and error that makes each jazz performance unique.

“It’s not ever static,” Kennedy said. “It’s always changing, and one performance is always different from another.”

To move from her opera roots to her jazz style, Kennedy said she listens to jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and incorporates what the other quartet members play.

“Jazz is about playing on a team,” Kennedy said. “When you’re playing in a jazz ensemble, you’re playing together, and you don’t want to let down the rest of the team.”

The Waco Early Jazz Quartet spurred the formation of the Uptown Swing Quartet — a spinoff that performs at Pinewood Coffee Bar. Thiltges and Burris also play in the latter, along with Dr. Jim Kumahata, senior lecturer in Japanese, and J.B. Smith, managing editor of The Waco Tribune-Herald.

While Smith grew up in a family band, he said the Uptown Swing Quartet was his first opportunity to play jazz guitar with an ensemble.

“[Jazz is] collective improvisation,” Smith said. “So we’re listening to each other and creating something together in real time, and it’s not predetermined what that’s going to be.”

To Smith, jazz feels more like play than work with its spontaneity.

“There’s always surprises,” Smith said. “And sometimes there’s wrong notes, and sometimes there’s happy surprises where something turns out really well that we hadn’t even practiced.”

Burris taught himself how to play the trumpet and the saxophone, learning how to play by ear by replicating melodies from his favorite shows or Louis Armstrong records without sheet music. He said transitioning from practicing to performing in front of an audience wasn’t as much of an obstacle as he anticipated.

“You can find a way to play in public, if that’s what you want to do,” Burris said.

Kumahata, who plays the upright bass in the quartet, has played in bands and orchestras in Japan and the U.S. He said he bonded with Thiltges over Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt’s internationally popular music.

“It’s a borderless thing now,” Kumahata said. “It doesn’t matter where we are. We just play.”

Kumahata said music not only ties the quartet members together but also reaches audiences in a way that goes beyond language.

“So much communication takes place while playing,” Kumahata said. “What’s beautiful is that we’re enjoying what we like together without words.”

Kumahata said he enjoys connecting with others through music and loves when they just “get it.”

“Enjoy the moment,” Kumahata said. “We’ll provide music for you, and we’ll enjoy that moment together in the same space.”