Photo by Steve Kuzma
Word of mouth travels fast.
That’s how Washtenaw Community College’s Jazz Combo established itself as a staple at nearly every event and celebration around campus.
The college has John E. Lawrence, former director of WCC’s Music Performance program, to thank for that. But, interestingly enough, the band sort of came together by accident.
The year was 2013 when Lawrence’s jazz combo class was scheduled to perform at the Honors Convocation—an event that recognizes WCC students who achieve a GPA of 3.5 or higher. But when the drummer didn’t show, Lawrence rolled out plan B.
“Johnny called to see if I could sit in for his drummer,” explained Arnett Chisholm, Dean of Student Diversity and Inclusion at WCC. “He later discovered that (history instructor) Thornton Perkins played the bass guitar, so he also drafted him to come and play.
“Then, communications instructor Jennifer Jackson informed Johnny that she would be interested in singing from time to time,” Chisholm continued. “Shortly after that, (business instructor) Maurice Stovall joined on the rhythm guitar and (pharmacy technology director) Kiela Samuels joined as lead singer.”
Pretty soon, there were enough people to form a real band. But when Lawrence retired last year, the remaining band members didn’t know if they’d continue without him. After consulting with Lawrence’s replacement, Steve Somers, who currently serves as the band’s leader, they decided to keep going—and now they’re stronger than ever.
“Our passion for music and learning has brought and kept us together,” Somers said.
The band performs at annual events throughout the year, including WCC’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, the WCC Foundation Mardi Gras fundraiser, and Free College Day. If there’s an event on campus, they are almost always there.
“I love performing and seeing the smiles on people’s faces and connecting with the audience,” Samuels said.
Band members come together at least once a week to practice and rehearse the music. The genre performed depends on the venue, but they specialize in jazz-style music due to Morris Lawrence’s musical legacy at the college.
For those who don’t know, Lawrence (no relation to John E. Lawrence) was a renowned jazz musician who helped propel WCC’s jazz orchestra to national and international acclaim. Under his direction, the band performed at the White House, Carnegie Hall, and the Montreux/Detroit Jazz Festival, among many others. He died in 1994, but continues to inspire others through his music, which resulted in his name on a campus building.
Samuels says the growing demand for the band to perform at upcoming events is more proof that music brings people together in ways that only music can.
“We just have a good time when we’re up there,” she said.
Although the WCC Jazz Combo consists of WCC faculty and staff from various departments, current music students and alumni are encouraged to show off their musical talents as well due to their open-door policy.
“Performing with the band really allowed me to get to know the professors on a more personal note,” said community member Claudia Young, who completed two Jazz Combo and Improvisation courses. “Sharing the common ground of jazz definitely builds bridges between students and professors.”
Spoken like a true musician.
Whether it’s brushing up on old skills or playing for the pure enjoyment, every member of the band seems to have their own unique reason why they perform.
“Playing with the WCC Jazz Combo, I get an opportunity to work with some great individuals, and I feel like it’s a form of giving back to the college—being able to do something fun and upbeat that’s outside of my job duties,” Chisholm said. “Playing the drums relaxes me and it’s a form of self-expression. When I’m playing, I don’t have a care in the world; it’s all about the beat.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of On The Record.