Common conceptions of jazz music typically evoke images of time-tested, weary performers in small, dimly-lit bars of the 1950s and ’60s. The opulence and spectacle of classical music seems to be frozen in centuries past. At some point, at least to the perfunctory music fan, these became your parents’ ““ or worse, your grandparents’ ““ genre of music. So, the class of students graduating this year from the departments of music and ethnomusicology seem to be fighting an uphill battle to create something unique and individual.
“The biggest problem in both classical music and jazz music is that it’s viewed as a historical thing and not as a thing that’s going on right now,” graduating jazz and classical composition student Nick DePinna said. “The classical world right now is 90 percent old music by composers who are dead, and maybe 10 percent living composers. The same thing applies to jazz … maybe 75 percent old music, 25 percent new music.”
In four years as undergraduates in the UCLA music and ethnomusicology departments, DePinna, trombonist and composer, along with fellow graduating jazz student Noah Garabedian, bassist, attempted to reinvigorate the lineage of jazz and classical music into something new and compelling.
“(Jazz is) quickly disintegrating in terms of genre, but not in terms of its existence,” DePinna said. “I mean, you can’t really tell the difference anymore between a lot of jazz and a lot of pop, and a lot of jazz and a lot of classical music, and a lot of jazz and a lot of rock music. In a lot of sense, it’s not dying or falling away, it’s just losing the definite boundaries.”
In composing original pieces, DePinna looks to this amalgamation of styles as a sign of the contemporary era he occupies.
“In my opinion, no one in the right mind born when we were born, which is the mid-eighties, can in the right consciousness write straight-ahead ’50s-style jazz. It doesn’t work,” he said. “So naturally the music we grew up with, which was pop and rock and maybe oldies on the radio station … we write music that is who we are, which is unavoidably a hybrid of a lot things.”
Additionally, the placement of modern recording technology ““ such as digital recording, sound modulators and synthesizers ““ within jazz and classical music has drastically altered the playing field for young performers and composers. The electric modification of sound and timbre imbues the music of the two genres with new colors and textures.
“It’s part of the sound of your instrument and it’s linked to the music that’s coming out of your amp, and it’s linked to the music that’s coming out of your horn,” DePinna said. “And you need to practice with it, you can’t practice without it. It’s not just something you can add on, like another layer of paint, it’s like a new instrument.”
Classically trained flutist and senior music student PÃ©nÃ©lope Turgeon also recognizes the importance of electronics within the jazz and classical idioms. Yet, she still stresses the maintenance of solid fundamentals before indulging in electronic manipulation.
“It’s part of what’s happening (in) music and you have to learn to live with it,” Turgeon said. “It’s important to be able to do everything: to have a good classical fundamentals, to know the history and know where it’s coming from. And then you have the choice to pick and choose what you want to apply into the new stuff.”
The modern digital era also offers composers a chance to self-record with greater ease and utility. Self-production has become increasingly necessary as the record industry continues to decline and jazz and classical music fall to the peripheries of contemporary music.
“Nowadays with self-production you’re not going to get signed to a label, you need to create your own label,” DePinna said. “You really don’t have to find your niche, as much as you have to make it, which is a big difference from music 20 years ago. You can create it from the start instead of searching endlessly for something you fit into.”
Looking at their relation to the future in jazz and classical music, the graduating seniors find invaluable lessons gained within their experience at the music and ethnomusicology departments at UCLA.
“If you’re a musician, it can be a very frustrating major to be in, because a lot of networking is done by yourself; the school can only do so much for you,” graduating music student and clarinetist Denexxel Domingo said. “But you’re going to be the one performing and you’re going to be the one that has to be able to present these works at a specific level of playing.”
Applying the improvisational frame of mind that is essential to the jazz ethos allows the performers the flexibility to enter the fickle world of music.
“You learn just to work what’s thrown at you,” Garabedian said. “It is a do-it-yourself program. … That might not work out so well for some people, because if the faculty’s letting you do your own thing and if you’re not doing anything, sooner or later you’re going to realize you’re not a great musician, and you have a degree in ethnomusicology, and I’m not sure what you do with that.”
“I have no clue what is going to happen when setting out on this,” DePinna said. “And it won’t be what I expect, but I guess that’s the fun in it. We are artists because it’s what we need to do, it’s what we love to do. We’re not going to get rich off it, so for God’s sake, we have to love it.”