Over the years, the Elmhurst College Jazz Band has played just about every imaginable kind of venue, from international jazz festivals to local taverns and from rowdy wedding receptions to State Department–sponsored cultural showcases. But for sheer exuberance of welcome, the members of the band say, there is no place quite like Niš, an industrial city in the southern lowlands of Serbia.
The band has played Niš in each of its last two summer overseas tours, most recently on the main stage of the highly regarded Nišville Jazz Festival in August. Niš is about 5,000 miles from Elmhurst, but the Serbian audience’s enthusiasm for the band’s music had the Americans feeling like hometown favorites.
“It was amazing to see how emotional the crowds were about the music,” said Sam Simpson, a senior saxophonist from Sycamore. “They really love hearing Americans playing big band jazz.”
Impressing audiences overseas has become a tradition with the Elmhurst Jazz Band. They have toured 17 countries over the last two decades, making appearances at such renowned events as the Umbria, Montreaux and North Sea jazz festivals. They have played with such well-known guest artists as trumpeter Clark Terry, drummer Louie Bellson and vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater.
For the student musicians, the tours offer the chance to see the world and to play before enormous and ardent audiences. Nearly 5,000 people heard the band play on the main stage at Niš this summer during the band’s nine-concert tour of Serbia and Bulgaria.
“It’s one of the most enriching experiences you can imagine, to play for an audience that big and that passionate about the music we’re playing,” Shelley Bishop, a senior saxophonist from Brisbane, Australia, said during a break during one of the band’s recent rehearsals in Irion Hall. “After all the hours we spend in this room, it’s so great to step out in front of an audience like that.”
But the tours are no vacation. An eight-hour bus ride might deposit the band in a new city just in time to run through a sound check, grab a bite to eat and prepare to entertain another audience. That kind of schedule amounts to a crash course in the realities of professional music making.
“They might get a little tired, but no matter how tired they are, when it’s time to play, they’re expected to be on, they’re expected to kill it,” said the band’s director, Doug Beach. “Then they get back on the bus and do it all over again. That’s playing like a professional.”
And when the band does have some free time on the road, Beach doesn’t fret about his students misspending it.
“I don’t worry about these guys. There’s no curfew, no bed check. They understand the tradition of excellence that they’re a part of,” Beach said. “They know they’re representing the band, they’re representing the College, and they’re representing the United States.”
The band’s annual tours have spanned the globe, from Chile to the Czech Republic and from Indonesia to England. Closer to home, Beach and the band host the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival each February. One of the great college jazz festivals in the country, it draws the best college bands and some of the most acclaimed professional musicians to campus for three days of performances and workshops in the College’s Hammerschmidt Chapel.
The band maintains a busy schedule during the school year, performing off campus on most weekends. Every year the band plays Chicago’s renowned Jazz Showcase, where they perform on the same stage that has hosted greats like Bill Evans, Count Basie and Dexter Gordon.
“You see the posters of all the great players who have been there and it’s almost paralyzing,” said Adrian Gomez, a junior trombonist from Addison. “Audiences there expect a high caliber of music. It’s our job to provide it.”