U.S. Navy Band Commodores get in the pocket with Elon’s Jazz Ensemble

The world-class musicians of the Navy Band Commodores offered a clinic and concert for students and faculty in the Department of Music.

In middle school, Tess Trayner ’26 often stole away to the school library for study sessions soundtracked by jazz greats like John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Max Roach.

Now the drummer for Elon’s Jazz Ensemble, Trayner’s study session last week was accompanied by the masters in the U.S. Navy Band Commodores and their drummer, Musician 1st Class Kevin McDonald.

The Commodores are an 18-member jazz band comprised of sailors whose full-time job is to serve as ambassadors for the Navy in performances around the world. The band visited Elon on Thursday, Oct. 19, to deliver a music clinic for members of the Jazz Ensemble and an abbreviated concert for students and faculty in the Department of Music.

A group of students and naval officers playing instruments in a band room
Elon students and the U.S. Navy Band Commodores play in the Center for the Arts.

When McDonald strode to Trayner’s drum kit and began giving feedback, showing them some of his techniques and offering suggestions for drummers to study, it was a surreal full-circle moment for the Cinema and Television Arts and Communication Design double major.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Trayner said. “I’ve always loved the military jazz bands and I’ve seen the Commodores before, but this was so intimate. They’re an incredible band and they know how to connect and to teach. Getting to talk to him and sit down and work with him was amazing. He gave me some valuable information that I’ll be applying in our jazz concert Nov. 11.”

For more than an hour, officers in the Commodores met and played alongside Jazz Ensemble members, periodically critiquing style — embouchure and airflow for horns, articulation and strokes in the rhythm section — and cheering students on during solos.

“Having the Navy Band Commodores jazz band on campus was truly an exceptional experience for our music students,” said Alex Heitlinger, assistant professor of music and director of Elon’s Jazz Ensemble. “Along with their incredible musicianship, the Commodores brought a clear passion for teaching and service that was evident throughout their visit. For our students, getting the chance to play music alongside these world-class musicians represented experiential learning at its very best.”

Three saxophonists seated and playing in a band room
Mason Cappelletti ’25, center, and Senior Chief Musician Rob Holmes play saxophone Thursday, Oct. 19, in the Center for the Arts.

Baritone saxophonist Mason Cappelletti ’25 was one of several whose solos were recognized with applause. Cappelletti spent the clinic “listening with one ear and playing with the other,” flanked by officers on each side. When he wasn’t playing, Cappelletti leaned into quiet conversation with Senior Chief Musician Rob Holmes, a professional musician, composer and recording artist who’s been with the Commodores since 2000.

“This is like playing with the masters,” Cappelletti said, beaming. “The top dogs and military bands are who everyone sees at big, national events. It’s just an honor to be able to play with them.”

Elon’s Jazz Ensemble is one of more than 15 music ensembles housed in the Department of Music, including choral groups, various bands, orchestras and chamber groups. The Jazz Ensemble concentrates on the key stylistic ingredients of jazz, “America’s Classical Music,” swing and improvisation.