Except for a few commuter students and late-night Taco Bell-goers, Nordy’s Place is fairly desolate after 9 p.m.
Last Thursday night, a few guys racked up shots at a pool table in one corner of the room while a small group rallied a pingpong ball back and forth in the other. It seemed like just another average night in the William Pitt Union — until Macklemore stopped blaring through the speakers, and a group of jazz students, trombones and drumsticks in hand, stepped on stage for their weekly Thursday night jam session.
Once the band began playing, pencils dropped and heads turned as the smooth, soulful melody of the trombone and light, repetitive beat of the drums grabbed the attention of every studier and maintenance worker in the room.
Every other Thursday night, the Pitt Jazz Ensemble invites experienced and beginner jazz players, music students and non-music students to jam out in Nordy’s.
“It’s a creative outlet,” said Ayanna Buffaloe, a trombone player. “There’s no pressure to sound good. There’s no pressure to be anything. It’s just something for you to go try out.”
The session kicks off at about 8 p.m. with four or five house band members chosen and led by the host of the week. Each jam session has a new host who selects a list of songs for the band to play. Usually these songs are jazz classics, including those of Thelonious Monk and Antonio Carlos Jobim. However, members usually end up incorporating their own personal style and sound to the original tunes.
Aidan Epstein, a first-year graduate student, started the Thursday night jam sessions after he returned to Pitt to study jazz. He’s currently involved with four separate music projects around the city of Pittsburgh, works as a teaching assistant for a History of Jazz course and plays bass in the Pitt Jazz Ensemble.
“I wanted to create a space for Pitt musicians to collaborate in a creative [environment] where they can come and hang out, because that sort of place doesn’t really exist for students,” Epstein said. “There is a strong jazz culture in Pittsburgh, [and] I wanted to give students an outlet to be able to just jam.”
Buffaloe, a junior computer science major and music minor, is responsible for choosing the songs that the house band plays at each performance.
“We have a [music] book, and the book has the most popular and common jazz songs,” Buffaloe said. “It’s pretty universal, but it doesn’t have to be exact. You can take a song out of the book and make it your own and change some elements and do whatever you want with it. It’s a blueprint to what we’re actually doing.”
Buffaloe started playing the trombone in the fifth grade and taught herself guitar in high school, never taking a formal lesson. In addition to hosting jam sessions, she is a manager at Five Guys and a member of the Pitt Jazz Combo, a smaller music group that meets once a week. After graduation, Buffaloe plans to be an audio technician, pursuing a career that combines her love of music with an interest in computer science.
Buffaloe said she plans to modernize her music in the future by fusing traditional elements of jazz music with those of hip-hop.
While playing her trombone, she tries to incorporate the different sounds of her favorite genres of music into her jazz playing — and the Thursday night jam sessions are just the place to do that.
After the first hour, the house band stopped playing, leaving the stage open to audience members.
There was a noticeable change in the atmosphere during the second half. The mood seemed to have lightened up even more as new band members introduced themselves and casually conversed with each other about the next song. The amount of musicians on stage nearly doubled — as well as the audience, which had about 20 people.
Chris Connell, a junior health services major, heard music coming from the lounge while walking through the Union Thursday and decided to stop and check it out. He’s a saxophone player but had just drifted in to listen.
“It’s just cool to see everybody just looking at each other,” Connell said. “It’s definitely not something you get when you’re just listening to music on your headphones. You can see all the chemistry between all the musicians, and that’s really important. Maybe I’ll bring my saxophone next time.”
Even though most everyone on stage is familiar with the traditional styles of jazz, it’s the improvisation feature of the jam sessions that really attracts new players.
“So if you notice on stage, that last thing we played wasn’t a song that anybody’s written,” said drummer Christian Snyder, a sophomore political science and philosophy major. “We know what to do through communication on stage. We’re talking and looking at each other and listening.”
Even when someone messed up a note or was in the wrong key, there were only smiles and laughter on stage.
“You never know what you’re doing in jazz,” said Chris Engel, a first-year physics major and guitar player. “I like improvising more. I like situations where you can add your own spin on it, which I think is kind of the point of jazz.”