Opening notes: Franklin College debuts jazz group

The sultry sound of horns, bass, piano and drums filled the small theater with a smooth groove.

Franklin College students ran through a selection of jazz classics from titans of the genre — Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Horace Silver, among others. The six music majors had come together in celebration of jazz, learning the building blocks of the style and getting comfortable with its improvisational rhythms and beats.

And in just a few days, they’ll have their first concert together.

“It’s really cool. This is what we’ve been waiting on for the past 2 1/2 years. To be able to finally do this is really cool, and I’m glad we’re at this point,” said Elliot Davidson, who plays trumpet in the group.

For the first time ever, the Franklin College Music Department will present a concert devoted entirely to jazz music. The college’s newly formed jazz ensemble has prepared a program that explores jazz standards.

The event, which will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 1 in Clarence E. & Inez R. Custer Theatre on the college’s campus, is free and open to the public.

With what they hope is the start of a new tradition, the ensemble aims to add a new element to the college and Johnson County community.

“It would be great if it were to become a staple at Franklin College. If you have a good small group, it opens up possibilities for social events and other opportunities,” said Jonathan Rice, instructor of woodwinds and music theory at the college. “I want the community to see how hard these kids have worked, and all of the time and effort they’ve put into this. And I want them to enjoy this end product.”

The six current members of the jazz ensemble include Davidson; drummer James Shelton; bassist Christina Black; saxophonist Sarah Mendoza; pianist Devyn Kerr, and Jasaun Johnson on clarinet.

The group is a perfect size for what they’d like to do, Rice said. Sextets have been a staple in small jazz combos, with legendary groups such as the Miles Davis Group, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane performing in such tight-knit bands.

“We’re really getting back to those kind of roots,” Rice said.

The story of Franklin College’s jazz ensemble started when Rice was hired in 2019. His background in jazz music caught the attention of his students, who quickly inquired about starting a performing jazz group.

Rice knew that there weren’t enough people in the program to have a traditional large jazz band. But he made a deal with the students.

“I told them, if they could find a rhythm section, we could put something together,” he said. “They came back in a couple days, and found a drummer, a piano player and a guitar player. So there was our rhythm section.”

The ensemble started out practicing the most basic principles of jazz music, allowing the students to get the feel for the style. Almost all of the students had little to no jazz experience when they started; a majority of them simply wanted to learn, Rice said.

They continued to work through the school year, even though the COVID pandemic made rehearsals difficult; for a time, the group was put on hiatus.

But as classes resumed in person at the college, so did the ensemble.

“We were able to get it going again, albeit wearing masks. But the important thing was, we were able to continue it,” Rice said. “They kept working harder and harder.”

At the college’s instrumental chamber recital in April, the ensemble had its debut, performing to an enthusiastic audience. The reaction convinced Rice to take the group a step further.

“I thought it was time for our own concert,” he said. “I started putting together tunes that were attainable for them.”

The program is such that the students have learned a slate of standards that will allow them not only to perform in this inaugural concert, but would translate if they’d play in clubs such as the Jazz Kitchen around the area, Rice said.

“If they wanted to sit in on a jam session, they could call up one of the tunes we’ve learned in class and go from there,” he said. “It’s not only an educational experience, but if they choose to do this more outside class, they have the tools to do so.”

As the concert date has come closer, excitement has been growing among the students. And seeing them all take these new skills and flourish has been exhilarating, Rice said.

“I know for me and the students, its extremely rewarding as well. They’re excited to show off their stuff, I’m excited to show them off,” he said. “Hopefully, it will spark even more of an interest within the Franklin College community.”


Franklin College jazz concert

What: The school’s inaugural concert devoted entirely to jazz, performed by a group of Franklin College students.

When: 7 p.m. Dec. 1

Where: Clarence E. & Inez R. Custer Theatre, located in Old Main on the college’s campus, located at the corner of Branigin Boulevard and Monroe Street.

Admission: The concert is free and open to the public