Ten days, 10 students, seven performances in seven different venues, three master classes, leading a jam session at an international music festival and a lifetime of experiences.  That’s what the NIU Jazz Ensemble encountered on a whirlwind tour of Mexico October 20 – 30, highlighted by their performance at the prestigious Festival Internacional JazzUV in Xalapa, Mexico.

NIU Jazz Ensemble Mexico poster

Rodrigo Villanueva, NIU Professor of Jazz Studies and Director of the NIU Jazz Ensemble said that the cramped quarters and hectic travel could have been a challenge for the group, but if that was the case, they didn’t let it show.

“It was a lot of fun, and a great experience,” Villanueva said.  “Usually when you travel with a group of people there’s at least one who is kind of the downer in the group, somebody who has an attitude or thinks things aren’t going to go well.  But in this case nobody was like that.  We had ten students and they were all great.”

Villanueva said playing so many times on the trip before their appearance at the festival really helped the ensemble tighten things up.

“In two of the master classes part of the topic was how to rehearse a group like ours, so I was able to rehearse stuff for our festival performance while I was conducting the master classes,” he said.  “There were things that needed to be polished and we could use that time to fix stuff and explain how we work on different passages.  We played five times before the festival, and after playing so many times, the group was so much more mature when we got to the festival.”

Jazz Ensemble in Mexico Poster 4The ensemble that traveled to Mexico featured eight males and two females.  Four of them are graduate students, and Villanueva said the mix proved to be very beneficial.

“There’s a wide range of ages,” he said.  “We have two freshman who are 18, and then some of the students are up to 25 years old, but they got along great.  Sometimes that part is tough, when not everybody is the same age or same level of school.  Our grad students were very good role models, and took every opportunity to teach them something or show them how to execute things in different ways or just give then advice.  It was great to see.

“Sometimes when you do this in a purely academic setting you only see each other once or twice a week. They were together all the time, and it made them work as a team.  We’re a family now.”

After landing in Mexico City at 5:00 a.m. on October 20, the group played their first show that night at 10 p.m. in Cholula, Mexico not far from the epicenter of a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that occured just about a month before.

They also performed at Zinco, one of the most prestigious jazz clubs in all of Mexico.

Another highlight of the tour was a live concert at the Mexican Radio Institute (Instituto Mexicano de la Radio – IMER).  IMER is a public broadcasting network similar to NPR in the United States.

The NIU Jazz Ensemble 2017 Tour to Mexico
Soprano Saxophone, Robert Nordil*
Alto Saxophone, Karly Bunn
Tenor Saxophone, Elijah Wynn
Tenor Saxophone, Alex Pontious
Baritone, Christopher Jones

Piano, Alexis Adams
Guitar, Daniel Nelson
Acoustic Bass and Electric Bass, Chano Cruz*
Drums, Vibes and Percussion, Nathan Sanders*
Drums and Percussion, Paul Perrilles*

*- graduate student

“Each of the students brought 10 CDs, hoping we could sell half of them,” Villanueva said.  “We brought 110 CDs with us to Mexico and we came back with nothing.  We sold 100 of them and I gave ten away.  That was a record for me.  Usually if you sell 50 CDs on a tour you’re lucky.  The radio station performance was free.  People got their tickets by calling into the station, and they were so grateful that most of them bought a CD.  Some who didn’t bring money to the radio broadcast came to our show the next night and bought CDs.  The kids were thrilled because they were sure they were going to have to bring a bunch of CDs home with them.”

The NIU Jazz Ensemble CD “Footprints” is available for purchase online.

Jazz Ensemble Poster 3While in Mexico, they visited the pyramids at Theotihuacan, and the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa.

When in Mexico City they stayed in a hostel in a neighborhood where Hernan Cortes, the famous Spanish conquistador lived when he was in Mexico.  It was a short walk to the radio station, the university and most importantly for ten college age students, coffee shops.

The four graduate students on the trip helped Villanueva conduct 13 auditions of prospective students for the masters program at NIU.  “They are in the process of finishing up their applications,” he said.  “I’ll show the auditions to my colleagues in February when we have our regular auditions.  Hopefully some of them will come to NIU next year.”

NIU’s Center for Latino and Latin American Studies provided some financial support for the trip and as a return show of support, the NIU Jazz Ensemble will be performing at 6 p.m., Wednesday, November 29 in Cole Hall on the NIU Main Campus as part of The Social Justice Quilt Tour.

Join CLLAS, The Pick Museum and DREAM Action NIU for a private tour of the Social Justice Quilt Exhibit from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m., kicked off by the jazz concert.

The NIU Jazz Ensemble will also perform at the House Cafe in DeKalb on January 2 at 8 p.m. with special guests NIU Jazz Studies faculty members Fareed Haque and Geof Bradfield.  They will run the program they will be present on January 3 at the Jazz Education Network International Conference at the Dallas, Texas Hyatt Regency.