Spring into swing: Jazz performs for community
Jazz is an important part of Bethel College life. It serves as a form of entertainment for the student body, as the Bethel Jazz band and combo have routinely played for events such as Fall Fest, Christmas Gala, and Jazz on the Green. It has competed in jazz competitions, performed with well-known jazz musicians, and enriched campus for years, but this didn’t all happen overnight.
It all started with one, small jazz combo, formed in 1965, just popular enough to make it into the yearbook. This lit the spark that three years later, in 1968, would result in Dr. George Hitt starting the Bethel Jazz program, kickstarting more than sixty years of jazz tradition at Bethel College.
In its humble beginnings in the sixties, the jazz program started with no jazz professor. A “Jazz Artist in Residence'' program was set up by the college, which invited a skilled jazz musician to preside over the program for a year, teaching and mentoring the students in the band. After four of these resident jazz artists passed through (including Reed Arvin, Mike Steinel, Lisa Hittle, and native Newtonian Gordon Schrag), a jazz professor was finally established as a position among Music Department faculty.
From there, the Bethel Jazz program collaborated with the local high schools, hosted jazz clinics, and performed with famous jazz musicians such as drummer Buddy Rich, who visited the college in 1972. They were able to travel and perform as well. On a few occasions in Bethel Jazz history, the program attracted so many jazz-minded student musicians that it was able to split the jazz students into two separate bands or, at other times, a jazz combo paired with a full band.
“The Bethel Jazz program was great. I will say that my success in my musical career so far has a large part to do with the whole music faculty at the time I was here. I met and learned from all the right people that helped give me a broad perspective of what was possible and also specific education in different styles of music. I got to do everything at BC and it’s partially why I am able to swim in different musical streams effectively,” Joel Boettger, current professor of jazz said. Boettger was taught under Jim Pisano.
Bethel Jazz continues this tradition of excellence today. In the recent past, the jazz bands have been invited to perform at the Kansas Music Educators Association, a huge honor for any musical group.
“The BC jazz program has a long history of excellence from going to KMEA multiple times over the years. The jazz ensemble has also been highly rated at the Wichita Jazz Festival and the UNC Greeley Jazz Festival. More important than awards is the fact that students at BC are really into jazz and have a deep commitment to making this kind of music,” Boettger said.
Since the start of Covid a few years ago, the jazz program was forced to take it easy, like many other clubs, organizations, and musical groups opting out of a lot of performances. For a time, this tradition of collaborating with professional jazz musicians was put on hold.
However, as the end of the 2022 spring semester swings into view, Bethel Jazz is rising up to chase those winter blues away. Last Tuesday, the jazz combo and jazz band performed for the first time since Covid, with a guest soloist.
Guest soloist, Aaron Linschied, is a native Newtonian and graduate of Newton High School. He graduated from Bethel College along with his younger brother Joel Lindschied who was jazz professor at Bethel College for a time. Linschied now plays regularly in Kansas City.
“Having Aaron Linscheid as a guest artist signifies that Bethel Jazz is starting to get back to normal. He is a great trumpet player, educator, as well as just being a good guy to talk about music and life with. He is also a Bethel College alumnus. Bethel hasn't had a guest artist…since Spring 2019,” John Mark Koontz, first year from Newton, said.
Linschied spent Monday coaching student jazz musicians and rehearsed that evening with the jazz band and jazz combo for the next day’s performance. This was the first of two jazz performances this spring.
“Despite losing about two-thirds of our jazz students in the fall of 2019 and COVID-19 ruining many performance opportunities, Bethel Jazz is on its way up again with more students either already on campus or committed to attend next year,” Koontz said.
The second big performance will be “Jazz on the Green” on May 4, a Bethel tradition where the community comes together to enjoy…well, jazz on the green.
These performances spell a revival for the Bethel Jazz program and community, as it had laid dormant. Additionally, Boettger has a few goals in mind going forward.
“I’d like to take the band to festivals again and I’d like prospective students in the area to understand how good of a musical education you can get at BC,” Boettger said.