Nashville State Community College started its jazz ensemble program eight years ago, and already it's gaining national recognition.
Though far from the city's only award-winning music program, the program is set apart by its ability to connect even jazz newcomers to some of Nashville's best musicians — free of charge.
The ensemble frequently rehearses in Room 136, in the state-of-the-art building that houses the music program at Nashville State. Last spring, a dozen 20-somethings gathered in the room as music director Dave Edgington stood to the side, guiding them into a song he said they should approach "a little bit more like a fusion jazz."
The ensemble is all about experimentation, so Edgington rarely interrupts. Instead, he uses the occasional hand gesture to direct the musicians. For instance, he might point to his head.
"That means, 'Go back to the head and play the melody again.' "
Nashville State isn’t the only community college to offer a jazz program. What is unique is its roster of guest artists, says singer Trinity Terry, an engineer who Edgington convinced to join the ensemble.
"Being able to hang out with all these famous musicians, it kind of just shows you that it’s possible," says Terry. "Normally, when you’re sitting home watching the Grammys, you’re like, 'I can’t get there.' "
At Nashville State, local Grammy winners explain how, directly to the students. Artists like organist and pianist Cory Henry, of jazz pop band Snarky Puppy, and saxophonist Jeff Coffin, who’s played with Bela Fleck and Dave Matthews.
Edgington says that kind of access is priceless: "Maybe some communities would have to pay airline tickets and hotels, but these wonderful musicians live down the street."
The music director says they even have an unofficial artist in residence — Grammy-winning percussionist Roy Wooten, known artistically as Futureman. Edgington says, not only did Wooten give the school a drum set and set up most of their connections to other musicians, "he’ll just randomly show up on a Wednesday and just talk to a student" for hours.
For his part, Wooten, who also plays with Bela Fleck when not creating solo work, heaps the praise back on Edgington, calling him a consummate musician who’s "open to ideas that really actually help serve the whole community, which I think is the spirit of the college."
Wooten says Edgington also creates a family environment for students, which combined with the size of the school, means less pressure — and sometimes more freedom — than some of the city’s better-known music programs.
"It’s small enough to be intimate," says Wooten, "and when it’s intimate like that, everyone can sort of find their own voice. That’s the thing that I noticed."
That’s precisely what drew pianist Peter Blankenship to the ensemble. He appreciates the instrument instruction, music theory and ear training at the school, but he loves the support he gets from his fellow jazz musicians.
"Sometimes Dave has to pull comments out of us because we’re just so friendly," says Blankenship, "which is something that kind of surprised me since music can be kind of competitive. And jazz is kind of that place to show off your theory and technique, and so this has been really nice and welcoming."
There are actually several jazz ensembles, based on skill level. That’s because any student who wants to join can, says Edgington — just like at the school.
"At a community college, everyone is welcome," he says. "We find a place and we help them succeed."
All instruments are also welcome, including those not typically found in jazz, like the Chinese zither or the Indian tabla drums.
As well as classic rock singers with no previous jazz experience. Music major Sarah Grenier says she hadn’t given the ensemble any thought — until Edgington asked her to sit in on one rehearsal.
A year later, she was part of the ensemble’s first-ever national award. This spring they won a top prize from DownBeat Magazine, for recordings that Grenier says did not feel like work.
"I had so much fun every single second of working on these songs," she says. So much so, according to Grenier, that it was "mind-blowing" when she found out they'd won the award.
"I thought we were just having a good time!"
The ensemble members are also having fun forming bands outside of school — one of which is called Room 136, in honor of the rehearsal space in which they met.