Faculty by day, musicians by night: Professors form jazz band ‘Uptown Swing’

Dr. Alexandre Thiltges, Dr. Simon Burris, J.B. Smith and Dr. Hajime Kumahata (left to right) play in a jazz band called Uptown Swing every month at Pinewood. Photo courtesy of Alexandre Thiltges

By Ashlyn Beck | Staff Writer

During the day, Dr. Alexandre Thiltges teaches French to Baylor students, but every third Tuesday evening of the month, he becomes a guitarist for the Pinewood Roasters house jazz band: Uptown Swing.

Thiltges, who played music growing up and even performed in a bluegrass band, said it was not difficult to find others who wanted to play in Waco.

“Waco is a small town, so when [you] play jazz and when you play in that style, you get to know, easily, people who play,” Thiltges said.

Uptown Swing consists of Thiltges, senior lecturer in French; Dr. Hajime Kumahata, senior lecturer in Japanese and director of the Interactive Media and Language Center; Dr. Simon Burris, senior lecturer in classics; and J.B. Smith, managing editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. Smith met the professors through his wife, who worked at Baylor.

What began as “jam sessions” with the group of jazz musicians on Sunday afternoons eventually turned into Uptown Swing playing at Pinewood every month.

“Now we have a venue to play, and it’s a beautiful place like Pinewood, so we just meet once a month and we jam,” Thiltges said. “We have a lot of fun.”

According to Thiltges, Pinewood Roasters owner Dylan Washington was a student at Baylor, so some of the professors already had a relationship with him. Smith said Washington asked the band to play at Pinewood one night, and the rest was history.

“[Washington has] been a huge supporter of our band, and in fact, [he’s] kind of just the reason that we’ve made it happen,” Smith said.

Uptown Swing brought together people from various backgrounds with different experiences with music and jazz.

For Thiltges, music has always been part of life. He said he has memories of his dad playing the guitar and his uncle playing the accordion.

“Music has always been part of our family,” Thiltges said. “It’s a way of communicating [and] spending time together.”

One day, Thiltges picked up his dad’s guitar, and while he doesn’t recall how he learned, he has been playing ever since.

Now, Thiltges explores Texas swing and gypsy jazz, which he said have a lot of similarities. Texas swing is a tradition not unlike that of gypsy jazz in French culture.

“To me, it’s really interesting that the two worlds, being on two different continents, [have] a lot of similarities,” Thiltges said.

Smith said the love Thitlges has for gypsy jazz and French figures, such as Django Reinhardt, influenced the style of the group.

“He really has a deep knowledge of the tradition of jazz that comes from France,” Smith said.

Smith’s experience with jazz differs slightly from that of Thiltges. While music was a big part of his childhood, Smith said playing jazz publicly was an opportunity he waited a long time for.

“I’m just now being able to take the memory of jazz and [my] background in jazz and really do something with it,” Smith said.

Music is a way to relax and blow off steam, Thiltges said. Even more, it’s a form of communication and community.

“There’s a sense of communion, of belonging to something and to create something together,” Thiltges said. “It’s something magical to create something out of nothing.”

Thiltges said after classes, he likes to go home and play guitar — and he plays without even needing to think about it.

“It’s almost like a form of meditation, just playing whatever comes to your mind and forgetting about the day, getting lost in the music,” Thiltges said.

Similarly, Smith said music is a creative outlet for him. It’s a way to forget about the troubles of life and create something with other people who love music as much as he does.

“I think being able to play music is just one of the things that makes me happy and makes everything else in life that is unpleasant or frustrating a little easier to bear,” Smith said.

Although Uptown Swing began playing at Pinewood more than two years ago, Thiltges said the group will continue its monthly gigs for the foreseeable future.

“To me, I could not conceive life without music,” Thiltges said. “I mean, music is life.”

Ashlyn Beck is a sophomore University Scholar from Fort Worth Texas. She has a secondary major in news-editorial and a minor in French. Ashlyn loves working within the Lariat community and learning more about writing and reporting. After completing her undergrad, she hopes to go to graduate school or live overseas.