Go to content

All that jazz!

Getting in the swing… If it’s a challenge you’re after, the Jazz Orchestra is for you.

- 3 minute read
Student playing keyboard
Gabriel Margolis (Third Year, Music)

If you think jazz is all about the standard Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Glenn Miller, then the Cambridge University Jazz Orchestra (CUJO) are here to make you think again. Sure, they know how to serve up the classics – but at their performances you’re just as likely to hear something more unexpected, whether that’s an experimental jazz composition, some modern funk or maybe even a bit of American R&B band Tower of Power.

“CUJO plays very different music to a lot of the other big bands,” says President and bass player Louis Henry (Fitzwilliam, Fourth Year). Prior to joining the orchestra, Henry was a member of the Fitz big band Fitz Swing. “That was really lovely,” he says. “But in my third year I wanted a change. CUJO does have our classic swing chord charts, but we also do some really contemporary, technically challenging jazz music.”

Student playing trumpet and electric guitar
Trumpet, Ella Mason (Biological Natural Sciences, Third Year); on bass guitar (and double bass), Louis Henry, (MPhil, Medieval History).

To join, you’ll need to get through a rigorous audition process, and the society works with the University’s Centre for Music Performance, which set up masterclasses and sectional coaching by professional musicians. These have included pianist Nikki Isles, trumpet player Yazz Ahmed, vocalist Zara McFarlane and Mark Armstrong, artistic director of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Student playing saxophone
Manav Paul (Second Year, Music)

Guest musicians provide guidance – but just watching them up close is a lesson in itself, says Henry. “Playing behind these professionals and observing how they work, it subconsciously shows us how to rehearse and interact better as musicians. When we’re working with a professional, they mentor us on the tunes, but we also get to take those tunes away and come up with something which is more than just playing someone else’s music. We’re collaborating and adding our own touches to it.”

This spring, the ensemble will work with Mo Pleasure, former member of Earth, Wind and Fire. And CUJO also collaborate with other student orchestras and big bands from across the country. “When we play with the Oxford University Jazz Orchestra, it’s billed as the varsity of jazz. There’s a friendly competitiveness, but it’s a really fun thing to do.”

Student playing drums
Lincoln Grasby (Engineering, Second Year)

Last spring they revived a pre-Covid tradition of performing a concert with CUJO alumni, which included trombone player Tom Green, now a successful musician. “I’ve played his music with my friends, so I was like: ‘Oh my god, you’re actually Tom Green!’” says Henry. His personal highlight, though, is a concert CUJO played with multi award-winning saxophonist Emma Rawicz last November for the Cambridge Jazz Festival. “We played to 500 people at a sold out West Road Concert Hall. All of the pieces were her own compositions, but she really pushed everyone to take a solo at least once in the concert, and to really make those solos their own. There was one bit when we cut down to just a trombone solo with me accompanying on bass, which had a really cool textual effect.”

Challenging yourself is all part of the fun. “We all strive to play some really hard music,” says Henry. “Some of the arrangements we do involve really complex rhythms, complex time signatures and very exposed parts. You really have to know your part and be paying attention. You can’t rely on anyone else to pick up any slack. But when it goes well, there’s a huge sense of accomplishment.

More from Cambridge