Excuse me, do you have a moment for jazz?
Have you ever walked through the Olin-Sang American Civilization Center and the Mandel Center for the Humanities and heard music carrying through the halls? It could be coming from your own AirPods, or it could be a concert in the “Music at Mandel” series — free concerts for the Brandeis community that occur seven times each school year.
This past Wednesday saw (or heard?) the first “Music at Mandel” concert of the semester. “Jazz in the Afternoon” was performed by acclaimed jazz musicians Bob Nieske and Billy Novick in the Mandel Atrium. You may know Nieske as the professor who leads the Brandeis Jazz Ensemble, but he has also been performing interpretations of American jazz standards with friend and fellow musician Novick in local joints for over ten years. Their set this week included mostly songs from the Great American Songbook, the canon of notable and influential jazz and pop standards of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I didn’t know most of the songs by name, but found myself humming or tapping along to many familiar melodies found within them. Novick mentioned to the audience that he used to think their listeners would find it strange to hear jazz songs on just an upright bass and clarinet, without an instrument that relies on chords like a guitar. Now, he says, he hears their renditions as “true counterpoint,” referring to the Renaissance musical tradition of two voices in harmony, from which much of modern classical and jazz music has evolved. The musicians also told the audience that they love the freedom with which they can build off familiar tunes and improvise when there are only two of them onstage.
I enjoyed the familiarity of the American tunes from composers like Richard Rogers and Irving Berlin. Halfway through the set though, the duo played a more modern Italian jazz tune, “Estate.” This song was made famous worldwide by the Brazillian jazz tradition of Bossa nova in the 1960s, and it had a more modern, moodier feel than the older, traditional jazz songs played at the concert. The set also included a few musical theater standards, such as “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” from “My Fair Lady.”
It was a delight to be able to drop everything on a Wednesday afternoon, when I would normally be grabbing food in Sherman or “studying” in the library, to listen to talented and knowledgeable musicians for 45 minutes. Stopping to hear some jazz brought me a little stretch of peace and enjoyment in the middle of a hectic weekday. Plus, there was a free lunch.
I was surprised to see very few other Brandeis students present in the audience. The rows of chairs set up in Mandel Atrium were full, but almost entirely with older folks from the surrounding community. A van parked out front on Loop Road seemed to have shuttled some audience members from a local nursing home. I spoke to Debra Rosenstein from the Brandeis Music Department, who helps organize the “Music at Mandel” concert series. She hopes that students will take advantage of the concerts happening on campus, many of which are free to Brandeis students. I couldn’t agree more. The next “Music in Mandel” concert will be on Oct. 3, featuring the Lydian String Quartet.