By Cooper-John Trapp, Staff Writer
The third annual Big Band Ballroom Bash filled Costello Gymnasium on Friday, April 6 as a trifecta between Student Activities, the Athletics Department and the USM School of Music. Christopher Oberholtzer, Director of Jazz Studies at USM, conducted the Portland Jazz Orchestra (PJO) and the USM Jazz Ensemble. Sophomore Katie Oberholtzer, Christopher’s daughter, and freshman Alex Ouellette were the night’s two singers, alternating sets between USM and the PJO.
In the first hour of the night, Ballroom Dance Portland’s Ramon Martinez Campos and Polina Kirillova lead the group in introductory practice. The show started at 7 p.m., with sets alternating between the PJO and the USM Jazz Ensemble. During breaks in the music, Campos and Krillova performed professional dances to the room’s enraptured gaze.
Oberholtzer and Ouellette, who are both from the School of Music, starred as solo vocalists accompanying many of the songs.
Katie stated, “I’ve been around Jazz forever.” When asked about her experience as a Jazz vocalist, she responded, “I just love it. Everyone in my family has been so supportive [of her musical career].”
Christopher organized the first Big Band Ballroom Bash at USM three years ago. Big Band refers to a state of jazz music characterized by multiple musicians playing a full jazz orchestra, including trumpets, drums and saxophone. From the 1930s through the ‘50s Big Band jazz was a prominent form of entertainment, and traveling bands were a fixture of social events. The size of such bands were a necessity back then, as without a Public Address system they needed some way of filling the venues with sound.
Some in the crowd came to try a new venue, and because they love to dance. Laura Smith came with several members of Ballroom Dance Portland, a study where Campos and Krillova teach classes. She enjoys the experience of dancing with live music, and says “You have to go with the players differently [than recorded music] as they play around [with the melody].”
The PJO has played at the Bash every year since it was first held in 2015. “We’re more than happy to be here,” said Brad Ciechomski, who has played drums since the Orchestra’s founding in 2004. They perform at One Longfellow St. every third Thursday of the month and actively support local school music programs. The PJO also hosts a local high school band monthly to perform between breaks in sets on a professional stage.
The PJO was created for three reasons, Ciechomski stated,“to continue the legacy of Big Band music, provide a vehicle for the riders and bring in outside artists and musicians.”
USM students supporting peers in the music program created much of the energy in the room. Savannah Vermette, a sophomore social and behavioral sciences major, lead a group of her friends from the tables where they were sitting right up to the very front of the orchestra as Oberholtzer began to sing. “Friends support friends… so get up and dance!” Vermette said as Oberholtzer serenaded the room with “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”
While attendance was not significantly lower than last year, several attendees thought the event would have benefited from a higher headcount. “More people need to know,” said Josh Bloom, a freshman and member of USM track team. Walking through Upton-Hastings dormitory, friends of his asked where he was headed. When Bloom mentioned the Bash, they balked. “They think it’s a bunch of old people and they don’t think it’s gonna be fun, but it is,” he stated. “If more people were open to it, they’d come.”
Abedom Harden, a freshman health science major, shared his story. “I walked in here thinking ballroom dancing was boring. I met the whole cast, and in the end, I fell in love.” From now on, Harden says, “I will ballroom dance.”
“It’s a different way to have fun,” said Bloom. “There’s no pressure to dance a certain way like there is at other dances.” But, he added, “It’s only going to be fun if people come out.”
The Big Band Ballroom Bash was sponsored by University Credit Union. Events coming up with the School of Music include the USM Jazz Combos Concert on April 10 at 7 p.m at One Longfellow Sq., Portland and the 41 Annual Honors Recital on Saturday April 14 at 8 p.m. To see the complete calendar of events for the rest of the semester, visit usm.maine.edu/music.