Underground jazz

Once called ?devil?s music,? jazz has now become a widely accepted form of music around the world. In fact, Carnegie Mellon students have the good fortune of Pittsburgh?s being a nurturing home to jazz musicians. In the past two weeks, Carnegie Mellon students were treated to two fabulous jazz concerts at the Underground.

Last Sunday, students packed the Underground to see CMU director of jazz studies and renowned bassist Dave Pellow perform with guitar legend Jimmy Ponder, trumpeter Eddie Allen, and drummer Greg Bandy. The band?s mellow sound attracted many kids to come down with laptops and notebooks to study and listen to the quartet in the background. The group jammed on standards such as ?Autumn Leaves,? ?Body and Soul,? and John Coltrane?s ?Mr. PC,? as well as classic 12-bar shuffle-blues progressions, reminiscent of blues guitar legends such as Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

Ponder, the band leader, would often guide the group through each tune, beginning with a smooth, lengthy guitar introduction, and, with a broad smile on his face, ending the tune with ?All right, stop, that?s it!? The group gladly played along, each member taking a solo of his own before passing the ball along to the next soloist.

Pellow, who both conducts jazz bands and privately teaches students at CMU, often encourages his students to get involved in playing jazz outside of the jazz band. On Sunday night, Pellow invited CMU?s own Joe Etzine (?09) to play guitar on Charlie Parker?s ?Donna Lee,? and for the group?s last number, Matt Merewitz (?06) came up and jammed on Miles Davis? whirlwind swing number, ?Milestones.?

This past Saturday, students had the treat of seeing jazz played in the more contemporary style of Thoth Trio. Whereas kids were able to work and listen to the Jimmy Ponder Quartet in the background, Thoth Trio required much more focused listening. Composed of CMU alumnus Ben Opie on saxophones and clarinet, bassist Paul Thompson, and drummer Dave Throckmorton, the group was focused less on individual performances and conventional jazz grooves, and more on group improvisation.

The Underground, although only half-filled on Saturday night, was still pulsating with energy. The group would often play tunes with no chord progression, allowing room for heavy drumming and syncopated bass lines. Whereas the Ponder Quartet relied heavily on jazz standards, Thoth Trio played primarily original compositions. Not yet in their forties, the members of Thoth Trio ? still merely beginners in the world of jazz ? have a bright future ahead of them as a group and as individual musicians.

Although jazz may never be as popular as rock ?n? roll, it was still a pleasure to see kids and adults come out to support one of the most intellectually and creatively stimulating art forms on the market today. Jazz continues to be studied, performed, and appreciated by fans all over the world. Maybe one day, jazz aficionados will have the treat of seeing Thoth Trio and the Jimmy Ponder Quartet headlining Spring Carnival.