By Stefan Snijders
What’s so bad about taking an Asian tour with your university’s big jazz band? “The 14-hour flight,” Schylar Junginger, freshman saxophonist said, laughing.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s jazz band returned recently from a 14-day performance trip which took them to Omaha’s sister city Shizuoka, Japan. The group also stopped in China at X’ian, Beijing and Shanghai.
Armed with an arsenal of instruments and sheet music, the UNO Jazz 1 Ensemble braved long air times and unfamiliar territory. They embarked in the land of the rising sun, performing at the Shizuoka University before doing a little sightseeing.
Darren Pettit, saxophone instructor who has been teaching at UNO for 14 years, led the ensemble during the trip. Normally the group is headed up by Pete Madsen, jazz coordinator at UNO.
Pettit said the object of the trip was relationship building with other programs. However, it’s a great opportunity for young students to get out and see the world. Pettit said it was important for the students because it provided a chance to see a greater world view and observe how the rest of the world lives.
“A lot of students never leave the two states Nebraska and Iowa,” Pettit said. “To go to a place like China is huge for them. It’s one of those kinds of experiences that, you know, changes your DNA just a little bit.”
Pettit said he curated the group’s set list to represent the whole of jazz music as a form over its 100-plus years of existence. The ensemble performed pieces by famous jazz artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn, as well as original pieces by Pettit and senior piano major Benjamin Tweedt.
The Asian trip was Tweedt’s second trip with the UNO School of Music. He traveled with the smaller Jazz Combo group to Lithuania in 2013. He said the performance with the X’ian Jiaotong University’s folk ensemble was special because they not only performed a different style, but the UNO students and the X’ian students took the opportunity to briefly get to know each other’s instruments. For many UNO students, and some of the X’ian students, this was a first look at musical instruments they did not grow up seeing.
Tweedt said the opportunity to see historical sights and perform music he loves made the trip well worth taking. He also admitted the opportunity to perform his own composition, “Moving On,” in an international setting was especially memorable.
“It was pretty amazing actually, and it was totally unexpected,” Tweedt said. “I wrote it for a competition, and Darren said, ‘Why don’t we play it at the next concert?’ So we did, and one thing led to another, and it became a part of our set for pretty much the entirety of the trip. It was pretty special.”
If there was one drawback, all three agreed that smog and pollution were major issues. Tweedt said by the end of the trip nearly everyone was experiencing some kind of respiratory discomfort or illness.
Junginger said he started getting a cold of some sort in Japan that got worse later on, he thinks due to the pollution.
Tweedt said he loved getting to see the Great Wall. The terra cotta warriors in X’ian and the skyline of Shanghai were favorites of both he and Junginger. Both said that they were treated like rock stars.
“People lined up to take their picture with me at one show,” Tweedt said.
Junginger said they really seemed to appreciate jazz more than Americans do.
“Sometimes it felt like they treated us like gods,” Jundinger said.
Pettit, for his part, was happy to hear students notice how similar to themselves the Chinese and Japanese students behaved.
“I had several students comment to me, ‘They are just like we are,’” Pettit said. “I think that’s the top of the list, to see the kids recognize they are not unlike you or me.