Members of the audience at Pratt (McCulloch) Auditorium on the evening of April 29, 1999 (the anniversary of Duke Ellington's birth) witnessed a historic occasion when the first MHC Music Department student recital exclusively devoted to Jazz music was presented. Over the years, Mount Holyoke women have formed informal groups for “jam sessions”, but prior to the spring of 1999 these students had to travel to one of the other Five College campuses to audition for and play in an official jazz ensemble. When tracing the history of the Jazz Ensembles, one must consider that the study of jazz is relatively new to the campus as well.
In the spring of 1997, Music Department Chair Larry Schipull approached Mark Gionfriddo to ask if he would be interested in teaching jazz piano to Mizue Morita '98, who wished to study jazz on campus. More piano students for Gionfriddo followed in Mizue's footsteps, including Sarah Russo '01. Sarah and bassist Joyce Devlin (Professor Emeritus, Theatre Arts) had been meeting regularly to jam and were looking for an opportunity to play with other campus musicians. After preliminary meetings with Sarah and an approval from Larry and the Department, Gionfriddo formed the first Jazz Ensemble in the spring of 1999. The personnel of the first ensemble, known as the ‘Charter Combo’, featured Ryo Fukai '02 on soprano, alto & tenor sax; Amy Kommatas '01 on alto sax; Jennifer McDonald '98 on trombone; Russo, who also assisted Mark as Student Coordinator; Jamie Miller '01 on piano; Devlin; Caitlin Parsons '02 on bass & vocals; and Susannah ‘Ana’ Pearce '00 on drums.
The Jazz Ensemble became an official Music Department course offering in the fall of 1999 and enjoyed continued expansion over the next several years. After the historic debut concert, the ensemble appeared with the Concert Choir (now Chorale) for a Founder’s Day celebration in November of 1999. Chamber Jazz and Vocal Jazz were formed as offshoots of the Big Band and became official courses in 2000 and 2001, respectively. The Ensembles were also the only groups asked to appear on March 3, 2001 at a special dedication concert commemorating the renovation of Pratt Music Hall.
Another historic moment was the first appearance of the ensembles at Christmas Vespers when Chamber Jazz was selected by Choral Director Catharine Melhorn as featured instrumental ensemble for the 2002 event. Vocal Jazz made its first appearance at Vespers 2003 and is now a yearly participant. The Jazz Ensembles have toured and appeared in concert in New York City, Boston, New Jersey, Cape Cod, Nashville and Washington DC. The Big Band was featured in 2006 on two episodes of the popular National Public Radio quiz show “Says You!” Currently, the groups are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the ensembles, and this was commemorated with a kickoff year concert featuring returning alums and current students in May of 2008.
Gionfriddo has founded several concert themes which have become campus traditions: one is the annual Winter Concert entitled “Hot Jazz On A Cold Night!”, now in its tenth year; and the other is March’s semi-theatrical homage to the 1940’s radio variety show, “The Big Broadcast!”, which has featured a new production in each of the last four years.
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This page was last updated on December 28, 2009.
Content © Jazz Ensembles of Mount Holyoke College | Photographs © Frederick J. LeBlanc