BYU's Jazz Ensemble Won Several Awards at the Exclusive Invitation-Only Competition
In the world of jazz music, the name “Wynton Marsalis” or the mention of the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship warrants attention. A personal invitation by Marsalis to compete in the championship is simply “‘S Wonderful.” And that is precisely what happened this year to Brigham Young University’s jazz ensemble, Synthesis, led by Ray Smith.
The only way to participate in the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship is to be personally invited by legendary jazz trumpeter Marsalis himself and only ten universities from across the country are invited to compete. To say this competition is exclusive is an understatement and to be invited, as lead trombone player Jack English put it, is a “huge deal.” He said, “Some of the band directors at the championship aren’t just band directors but some of the greatest jazz musicians of our time. Working with them and their bands as equals was insane to me.”
Synthesis and its members won several awards at the championship, but it was no easy journey to get to that point. “We started the [2021–2022] school year with a young and relatively inexperienced band,” Smith said, “but we had some strong reasons to work hard and they all dug in and put their best into each event we did. The band had grown a great deal by the time we performed at the Jazz Education Network Conference in Dallas in January.”
English described the work that went into the ensemble’s preparation: “Outside of our normal rehearsals, members of Synthesis spent countless hours practicing our parts, learning chord changes and organizing section rehearsals to get to the point where we could be invited to the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship and it wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the direction of our director, Ray Smith.”
The group also dealt with unexpected challenges. The championship organizers postponed the event from its original date due to COVID-19 in New York City. While waiting for the competition to be rescheduled, Synthesis’s lead trumpet player graduated, leaving an important position in the ensemble unfilled. Fortunately, Bryant Jordan stepped up to the plate to fill that role and learn his part with limited time. “[He] really rose to the challenge, and he was named Outstanding Trumpet and our trumpets were named Outstanding Trumpet Section,” said Smith.
When Synthesis finally had the chance to perform, it was worth it. “They played extremely well, and I couldn’t have been more proud of them. It represented a year of hard, hard work. This was a great climax to my 40 years directing the ensemble,” Smith said.
The experience was especially rewarding for English, who had the opportunity to perform an arrangement he had written himself. “When Professor Smith told us we could play a student arrangement at the championship, I knew I wanted to try and write something. My big-band arrangement of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ was a project I finished after two or three days, and it was my first ever attempt at arranging for a big band. I based it off of an organ solo from a recording that I really like. I transcribed the first chorus of the solo, harmonized it, and turned it into a trombone solo that served as the feature of the chart,” English recalled.
English’s arrangement won an Outstanding Arrangement award, which was presented by Marsalis himself. He invited English to keep sharing his work with the Lincoln Center in the future. English described his experience going on stage to receive his award. “When my name was called and I walked on stage to shake Wynton‘s hand, I never would have ever thought he would ask me to send my future arrangements to Lincoln Center! He told me to keep writing and that I had a bright future ahead and I just about passed out when he said it,” said English.
And how did BYU compare to the other schools competing at the championship? English said, “Going into the competition, I wondered what the other bands thought about BYU. I wondered if we would be taken seriously, coming in as a band from ‘the Mormon school.’ At the awards ceremony, BYU Synthesis definitely proved that we could hang with the best of the best, earning outstanding trumpet and trombone sections, as well as outstanding solo awards in every single section of the band. After listening to all of the other bands and hearing what a high level everyone played at, it was crazy seeing how well we did, even when playing with the craziest competition in the country.”
Synthesis’s wins prove that with hard work and dedication, cougars who enter to learn go forth to shine.
Outstanding Trombone Section (Synthesis)
Outstanding Trumpet Section (Synthesis)
Honorable Mention Piano (Synthesis)
Outstanding Alto Saxophone (Bryn Chapman)
Outstanding Trombone (Jack English, Kevin West)
Outstanding Bass Trombone (Aiden Williams)
Outstanding Trumpet (Bryant Jordan)
Outstanding Arrangement (Jack English)