With an air-conditioner buzzing in the background, a trio of teenage jazz musicians is performing the American Songbook standard “All the Things You Are” inside a Eugene backyard studio.
Bassist Sarah Vance chugs along to the chord progression, while pianist Elias Miller plays the melody and chords and drummer Evan Furrow keeps time and complements the two other musicians with snare hits and cymbal splashes.
The band stumbles a few times, but professional saxophonist Joe Manis is steering the group from the corner of the room, mentoring them on how to overcome some of the nuances of the song made popular by legends saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Clyde Hart.
These aren’t the only musicians Manis works with as part of an afternoon jazz ensemble program. The program is related to Manis’ annual Oregon Jazz Workshop, which he’s the director of, and he advises musicians of all ages as they work on the art form and the ins and outs of leading a jazz combo.
“Taking solo lessons for jazz, you don’t end up with a lot of combo practice. That’s the biggest benefit for me,” Miller says. “Playing in a combo, I think the thing you get the most out of is interaction with the drummer.”
The instrumentation of the group depends on who shows up for practice. Furrow has played in the program for the past two years, and he’s played in various instrument make-up groups that require him to adapt to different scenarios, including playing drums for two horn players without the harmonic support of a pianist.
Players in the program often learn a song at home for their instrument and bring the chart to the next jam session, which some musicians in the group might have to learn on the spot. “When I call a tune, it gives everybody good sight-reading practice,” Furrow says.
Although improvisation is a key to jazz, what musicians often use to jam with each other are songs in The Real Book, a thick encyclopedia consisting of the bare bones structures of music — essentially cheat-sheets of chord progressions and melodies — from the American Songbook. And the more technologically adept use the smartphone app iRealPro.
But Manis uses his program to have musicians step away from over-relying on the book and app. Most songs in the book, he says, can be categorized, such as blues, bebop, Broadway and ballads. And he tries to point that out to his students.
“A lot of tunes have a lot in common,” Manis says. “If you learn this tune, you basically already know this other tune, but there’s one difference.”
The musicians don’t just rely on what’s written in the jazz charts. They also spend time with Manis dissecting previously recorded versions of those songs. “It’s very different from a jazz band,” Vance says, referring to more formal groups where music and parts are written out. “Things are much more spontaneous.”
During the jam sessions, Manis also talks through jazz albums and who played on the recordings. He acts as a living liner notes for the albums (something lost when listening to music transitioned to streaming services), creating a musical family of jazz for the players, filling in a task that albums and CDs once provided.
Learning all of these songs for the musicians has an end goal. It’s not just to have practice in a combo, and Manis helps them build a setlist for upcoming shows, teaching them not to play similar sounding songs (those in the same key or style) right after each other and how to be a bandleader. Groups in the program have gone on to perform throughout Eugene-Springfield, including Roaring Rapids Pizza in Glenwood, Saturday Market and Holiday Market.
With the amount of support and experience leading a combo and performing alongside other musicians, some of the players in Manis’ program are finding success in the music world. Trumpeter Caleb Davis is studying at the Manhattan School of Music, Vance will attend the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance, Furrow was recently named second chair in the prestigious Carnegie Hall-based New York Jazz Orchestra program — and more.
Practicing in Manis’ studio with the afterschool program isn’t about building your path to accolades, though. While talking with Eugene Weekly deep into the dinner hour after a 90-minute practice session, Manis asks the band if they wanted to work through “All the Things You Are” again. Not one musician protested.
But then again, the rest of the musicians probably agree with Furrow when he says, “Happiness is a thing called Joe.”
For more information, visit OregonJazzWorkshop.com. The Oregon Jazz Workshop, featuring some musicians in Manis’s afternoon program, has a free concert 5:30 pm Friday, July 28, at the Lane Community College Performing Arts Building (Building 6) at 4000 E. 30th Avenue.