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Jazz Fest Brings in Local Talent and Renowned Musician

High school students perform at the seventh annual UNCP Jazz Fest. Photo by Brandon Tester

The UNCP Department of Music hosted its seventh annual Honor Jazz Festival on Feb. 3-4.

High schoolers from around the region were invited to the festival. Those in attendance were divided into small groups headed by department faculty members. The students proceeded to multiple activities throughout the course of the event, including demonstrations and lessons.

Students were given an opportunity to learn from experts in their field while getting a sample of what the department has to offer.

This year’s festivities concluded with a concert on Feb. 4 at the Givens Performing Arts Center. The high schoolers in attendance were given an opportunity to perform alongside UNCP students. Many were able to share the stage with American jazz violinist Sara Caswell, who made an appearance as the event’s special guest musician.

An Indiana University graduate, Caswell is an accomplished performer who has worked with several prominent names in the jazz circuit including three-time Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding.

In addition to her extensive experience in the field of jazz, Caswell also teaches at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass., and the Manhattan School of Music.

Caswell sat down with The Pine Needle for an exclusive interview about her career and the advice she has for young musicians.

Q: Gives us some background on yourself. Where did you grow up, and what led you to become a musician?

“I was born and raised in Bloomington, Indiana. It’s in the heart of the state, a couple hours north of Louisville. There’s a great university there, Indiana University, which is known for having a great music program. My parents were teaching there. Within the home, I was surrounded by music all the time because of them, and then of course in the town itself because of the university, which is very musical.

Music was always kind of the soundtrack to my life. When I got to be around five or six years old, my parents wanted me to start playing instruments. I was given a violin to play. I remember the first four notes I played were the first notes to ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’. I was hooked right away. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I know this melody, that’s cool’! I also got frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to make the next note. It was enough of a hook to get me really excited about the idea of making music. I started playing violin when I was five, and I’ve loved it from day one.

I took private violin lessons, and because my parents were music historians and were very knowledgeable about music all over the world, I was taking jazz lessons and Baroque violin lessons. I did that up until I finished my high school years. In college I focused my studies on classical violin performance and jazz studies. When I decided I wanted to get my master’s degree, I moved up to New York and decided to focus my studies on jazz violin. I’ve been in New York since 2004.”

"Music was always kind of the soundtrack to my life."

Q: What was your big break in the music industry?

“Each gig leads to the next one. In a way, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing without any of my gigs. I suppose if there was one gig that opened the performance world to me as far as what’s out there, it was probably my touring with Esperanza Spalding. She’s an amazing singer and bassist. I had the chance to tour the world with her from 2010 to 2012 as part of a band called Chamber Music Society.

There was seven of us in the band. Esperanza was already starting to get really well-known on the jazz circuit, but she was especially well-known that year because she won the Grammy for best new artist. She won it against Justin Bieber. Of course, Justin was this super famous, teen heartthrob guy, so when this young jazz vocalist and bassist wins the Grammys instead of him it’s like, ‘wow, who is this person’? A huge spotlight was put on her for that. Her artistry speaks for herself. She’s just brilliant.

To work with her in that intense, very close setting, and then tour the world through it – we toured all over the U.S., we toured Europe, South America, Africa, Japan, - it was an amazing way to see the world as well.

Q: At one point, you were in the same position as many of the music students at UNCP. How beneficial was your educational experience in terms of building your career?

“It was essential for discovering and fine-tuning my skills, learning about what’s out there and having guidance from professors who learned and studied and practiced this music to know so much. They were there to be my guides and share with me what they know.

Not only that, but also being part of a community with my peers, using each other to draw inspiration and encourage experimentation. You can do what you want on your own, but especially with improvisation and jazz language, it’s a community experience. The way you learn about who you are and what your voice will be within a group is to collaborate with musicians. The idea of jamming and experimenting, college is the prefect experimentation ground to do all that stuff. So many of the friends that I met during my college years are still dear friends.

One of the great things about college is it’s an intense period where you’re focusing on you and getting your skills together. You’re not worrying so much about a job. You’re really there to practice, study, learn, collaborate and experiment. You don’t have to worry so much about bills or more adult responsibilities. You’re there to learn and become the person you’ll be for the rest of your life. It’s a very special time in a young musician’s life.”

Q: What are some of the emotions you feel when you’re performing in front of a crowd?

“Exhilaration. It’s an experience of connecting with an audience and being able to communicate with them in a way that doesn’t always involve words. I think it’s a communal experience. I’m making music and communicating onstage, but I also know that if I don’t have an audience to perform for and interact with, it’s not going to be the same. I need them just as much as they might need music. I love the idea of being able to share what I love with them. I can feel the energy coming from them and feed off that too. I want to put my best foot forward and do the best possible job for them, just as I hope if they’re coming to see me perform, they’re giving me their undivided attention. They’re willing to go on that adventure.

It’s kind of a trust relationship. That kind of trust is an exhilaration. It’s like the adrenaline rush you hear athletes talk about. It makes all the work you put into your music worth it when it gets you on the stage with great musicians and appreciative audiences.”

Q: What are some lessons you wish you knew when you were in school and in the early stages of your career?

“Listen to your inner voice if you want to try a style of music or learn more about something.

For me as a violinist, most violinists are pursuing classical music. That’s a beautiful thing to do. I also wanted to experiment with jazz, and wanted to continue doing that. As I was being exposed to more styles of music, I wanted to learn more about that.

I don’t think you should let tradition define who you are. If you love rap music, learn more about that. If you love Brazilian choro music, learn more about that. Let those inner desires guide you. Don’t let fear or concern about what others will think hold you back. The reward is going to outweigh any doubts.”

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