Elon musicians bring all that jazz to Italy

The Elon Jazz Ambassadors toured Italy with a series of 11 performances around the country from June 18 through July 4. 

There is no better feeling to a musician than hearing the chant for an encore at the end of a performance, and it was a feeling the Elon Jazz Ambassadors were lucky enough to experience many times while on a tour through Italy this summer.

“Every night, we were received with a standing ovation and an incredible volume of people wishing to shake hands and talk with the musicians after the show,” said Isaac Bates, a music production student at Elon University.

The Elon Jazz Ambassadors, a combined group of student musicians, toured Italy from June 18 to July 4 through this inaugural tour to bring traditional American jazz to a new audience. With 11 performances in six cities, the 27 students had an Italian tour they will never forget. The tour was organized through Academia Europea di Firenze, Elon’s center in Florence.

It was at a performance in the town of Cumiana that the group experienced how their music could help someone through a tragedy. Playing in the JazzIt festival in the city in northwest Italy, the group performed in a town square where 51 people had been executed by the Nazis during World War II. It was after this horrific event that American soldiers arrived in Cumiana and attempted to bring calm through music by bringing V-Discs with American jazz music. The Elon musicians chose a set of classic jazz pieces from the 1940s for the festival, with their set mirroring the songs brought by U.S. soldiers to the same square decades ago.

​“There was one older lady who was in the audience who had tears down her cheeks,” said Matt Buckmaster, associate professor of music and education, who helped develop the tour. “If I were to pick one powerful moment, that would be it. We took advantage of that cultural opportunity and represented Elon, and we also maybe put a conclusion to a horrific tragedy for someone.”

Buckmaster worked with Virginia Novine-Whittaker, a lecturer in music, to develop this international experience. They worked alongside Music Department Chair Jon Metzger for more than a year to develop, plan and conduct the tour. “A lot of the time at Elon when you have one or two people behind something you can really get it going,” Buckmaster said.

The students in the traveling ensemble were a combination of members of the Elon Jazz Ensemble led by Buckmaster and the Elon Music Ambassadors led by Novine-Whittaker. Many students participate in both, so the collaboration came easily. “The style of passing songs back and forth between the entire Jazz Ensemble and EMA made the performances very dynamic, and was a big crowd pleaser,” said Bates.

One of the first shows was at the San Francesco Convent in Fiesole as part of a series for a fundraiser for hunger in Africa. “I remember the students saying that if we went home after that first concert, we’d be happy,” Novine-Whittaker said about that first performance. “That’s how amazing it was.”

​The tour became more meaningful with each performance as the students realized that their music was bringing joy to a world that can often seem joyless. “The underlying meaning of the jazz festivals is that we can overcome all the challenges we have in the world. Through music, people will always find a way through the difficulties we face,” Novine-Whittaker said.

Music classes taught within renowned conservatories, performances that conveyed happiness through music, and nights filled with chants of “Encore!” all combined to make the Elon Jazz Ambassadors excursion a success and a great learning opportunity.

– By Madison MacKenzie ’18