Jazz at Holmes: The intersection of classical music and modern jazz

| Senior Cadenza Editor

Musicians play at Thursday evening’s Jazz at Holmes Lounge in 2015. The weekly event draws students and members of the public to relax and enjoy music.

St. Louis isn’t a hotspot “industry” city or jazz lodestone, but our small corner of campus is home to a community of jazz enthusiasts. Jazz at Holmes is a 21-year tradition started by William Lenihan, director of jazz studies, professor of music and jazz combo facilitator. 

Professor Lenihan returned to Holmes Lounge after a year-long interlude — due, of course, to COVID-19 — along with pianist Ptah Williams and Steve Davis. While Lenihan played the bass guitar at this event, he frequently finds himself on the piano and playing classical guitar. The trio’s first time back in the lounge unsurprisingly yielded a large and energetic crowd of students, faculty and community members. 

Professor Lenihan acknowledges that the perception of jazz has evolved and changed over generations, and, unfortunately, in the St. Louis area, there is little access to this new type of jazz because it just isn’t popular anymore. If you were to stick your head in Holmes Lounge on Thursday, you may not get the swing band and dancing that you quickly associate with traditional jazz; you may not even be able to categorize what music you are hearing. Instead, you would hear a more exploratory type of jazz with familiar classical music undertones. 

“Jazz is diverse, and the experimental components don’t always fit with what people automatically think of jazz,” says Lenihan. 

Jazz has always been improvisational, and this era of music is no different. What is unique is what the improvisation is based on. In the most recent performance, the musicians had sheet music of classical compositions. They used their knowledge of classical music to transform the jazz experience into something contemporary. Lenihan describes this project to be “unusual” for the program because of just how many historical outlets it reaches. 

The notion of jazz as an experience has always been true. Because it is so improvised, there has to be some kind of communication between the musicians that keeps them following each other. It is the hidden and unspoken language of music. 

“We [as a band] look at a chord and may pause or choose to hold it out, so it’s like this invisible conversation of how you will take the music and extrapolate from it. It’s as if we were to read the same paragraph then say ‘Let’s just talk about it.’ You won’t say the exact same thing, but you will be using the same information.” 

There’s no right or wrong in jazz, so the experimental aspect comes naturally. Professor Lenihan comments on how modern concerts have such specific and divided demographics, but events like this bring in a diverse population. 

“We make an effort to really invite everyone. This is why we have so many activities; it is to engage students, faculty and the greater university community. Many people don’t know that [the University] is a Mecca for study and practice. It is kind of an outreach program to the St. Louis community at large.”

The music department looks forward to showcasing many talented jazz musicians for their 75th anniversary. On Oct. 1, the department is hosting a festival on Brookings Quadrangle that will have two bands, including multiple famous names in the jazz industry. In addition, Lenihan is welcoming Paul DeMarinis to campus on Nov. 11. 

The return of Jazz in Holmes has reunited a community of jazz fanatics and has introduced a new generation of students to the creativity of the music. Jazz in Holmes will continue throughout the semester and occur about two to three times a month. While we encourage community members to take part in this event, we hope that your personal safety and the safety of others is always the first priority. Please make sure to wear masks, social distance and take your daily screening.

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