Inside of a silent concert hall, an attentive audience imagines the rev of an engine, the soulful roar of sudden drum rumbles rocking ribs, they feel the cool wind of high-pitched saxophones cruising forward. Within the notes, a highway out West takes form, jazz filling the air. Nostalgic piano keys chime in as the University of Alabama’s Jazz Ensemble follows the carefully composed Dave Douglas song, ‘Sunrise Highway.’
“The song ‘Sunrise Highway,’ I wrote it about a feeling. You’re driving on a road, and you think everything is going to be beautiful, even when it’s not. I wrote this piece imagining the highway was actually beautiful like that,” said Dave Douglas, an innovative New York trumpeter of over 50 records, including the recently released and critically acclaimed record called ‘Time Travel.’
Douglas, also a renowned composer awarded two Grammy nominations, came to the University of Alabama’s Moody Hall on Thursday, Oct. 2, to play with UA’s Jazz ensemble, and then to play his Quintet on Friday, Oct. 3.
“I never thought I’d be on stage with him,” Rob Alley, a local musician and UA instructor in the honors and music department, said. “That thought never even occurred to me.”
Alley played the trumpet lead for Douglas’s parts so that the Jazz Ensemble could practice with someone before he came to perform with them. Though he was only expecting to practice with the ensemble, he said that when Douglas asked him to play that night onstage with them, he knew even though he had absolutely no time, he wouldn’t miss it for anything. He has been listening to Douglas since 1992, when he first discovered his recordings.
The chance for the UA Jazz Ensemble, as well as Alley, to collaborate and perform with Douglas was a rare opportunity.
“Out there with my proverbial pants off, exposed, trying to make something happen, his vocabulary of the genre was so extensive, it pushed me beyond where I thought I could go,” Alley said.
Peter Grant, a percussion and drums player of the University of Alabama’s Jazz Ensemble for the past two years, said that, “once you see it in person, it’s a totally different performance.” Grant started playing percussion all the way back in second grade, so when his professor encouraged him to try out for the jazz band in college, he did, and he made it. He said now he usually practices for about an hour or two every day, but he said improvisation is still a key component to jazz. Douglas exhibited this “incredibly,” Grant said.
“Obviously, you play what’s on paper, but you might not play it at the same tempo or speed. You might improvise, and [in jazz] you can really do stuff by yourself. You don’t need someone to tell you what to do the whole time,” Grant said.
Although jazz takes practice like every other form of art, the break-neck improvisation required to be a creative and ultimately successful jazz leader is what differentiates this American-born form of music from radio-played, more well-known forms. One particular jazz song can be a whole different experience each time it’s played, versus a song that a pop artist might play, which has the intent to let the audience sing along and be familiar in the song each time.
“In jazz, everyone is important,” Grant said. “You’re always performing, and you learn to play off your mistakes. Jazz teaches you how to come back after you mess up without completely failing.”
Back in the 1940s, heart-throbbing blues fused with hip-grooving swing until the new type of innovative music—jazz—emerged, drastically different from the planned performance of orchestra and concert music. As Grant said after he played with Dave Douglas, “there’s not much of creating something in those forms.”
Though the style of jazz that was popular in previous years isn’t as popular today, it still has a dedicated fan base. Elements of jazz are also seen in all types of various genres and songs.
“Jazz is everywhere, people just don’t realize it. People are using jazz all over the place, all the time, with hip-hop artists pushing the bounds of tradition with current things,” Alley said.
The director of the UA Jazz Ensemble, Chris Kozak, partnered with Sonic Frontiers and the UA School of Music to bring Douglas down to Tuscaloosa to play his Quintet.
“Chris understands the spirit of the music is innovative. He brings in current innovative jazz musicians,” Alley said. “The fact is, he’s bringing in the people that represent the essence of the music. These are the people sticking their necks out, so to speak, to move the music forward to keep it current.”
Joe Berry, a sophomore jazz studies major and two-year jazz ensemble drummer, said it was an eye-opening experience to play with a musician of that caliber. Although both he and Grant said the performance with Douglas was a high-pressure environment, no one on stage could contain the occasional, awed grin throughout the performance at the fact they were playing with such a well-known jazz musician. In addition to playing that Thursday and Friday evening, Douglas hosted a masterclass in-between his performances.
“Educationally, it’s imperative he’s doing it for these students. It gives them great role models to look up to,” Alley said.

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