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BYU Jazz: Synthesis and the Essentially Ellington Jazz Festival

Whether directing Synthesis, mentoring students, or organizing the Essentially Ellington Regional Jazz Festival, Dr. Ben Nichols is enthusiastic about the potential of jazz at BYU.

Dr. Ben Nichols is the third director of Synthesis, BYU's premier big band, following in the footsteps of former directors Newell Dayley (who founded the band), and Ray Smith. While Ray was at BYU, he collaborated with Jazz at Lincoln Center to begin hosting the Essentially Ellington Regional Jazz Festival. Looking back on his those accomplishments, Dr. Nichols says, “They cast a long shadow and they’ve [left] big shoes to fill.” Yet he is enthusiastic about continuing in his predecessor’s footsteps, especially when it comes to directing Synthesis, mentoring students, and organizing the Essentially Ellington Regional Jazz Festival.

Essentially Ellington Regional Jazz Festival

 


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Headshot of Dr. Benjamin Nichols
Photo by Image courtesy of Dr. Ben Nichols
Dr. Nichols remembers performing with Synthesis during the Essentially Ellington Regional Jazz Festival when he was a student at BYU. Now a full-time faculty member, Dr. Nichols oversees the annual jazz festival that gathers high school bands from across the state to perform and celebrate the works of Duke Ellington—one of the greatest American jazz composers and bandleaders of all time.

Dr. Nichols believes that Ellington’s works are immensely important for budding musicians. “[Ellington’s works] give [students] a great starting place and understanding to be able to build upon and to find their own voice within jazz,” he says.

Part of the draw of the jazz festival is that young students have the chance to hear the award-winning big band Synthesis perform.

Synthesis

 


All music can work to lift and inspire, and Synthesis blesses the lives of others with its soul and joyfulness. “The spiritual mission to be able to . . . help [audiences] feel the Spirit and to feel inspired and uplifted when they come to a concert is a huge motivating force and factor for what we do,” Dr. Nichols says.Synthesis has toured internationally, won awards, and been invited to perform at the prestigious Jack Rudin Jazz Championship in New York City. Dr. Nichols doesn’t just encourage players in this top-tier group to practice hard simply to perform well. Although that’s important, Dr. Nichols hopes to help each performer catch sight of their own unique voice and offerings to the ensemble. “I think [that] is a spiritual message, but it also goes hand in hand with jazz,” says Dr. Nichols. “Being part of a collective whole but also having an individual voice and something unique to bring to the group . . . is important.”
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“The spiritual mission to be able to … help [audiences] feel the Spirit and to feel inspired and uplifted when they come to a concert is a huge motivating force and factor for what we do.”
–Dr. Ben Nichols
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A Metaphor for Democracy

 


The jazz genre teaches musicians how to find their own musical voice, but it also acts as a metaphor for democracy, teaching students about active collaboration and compromise. Dr. Nichols explains that when jazz musicians combine their talents, they create something better than any individual could achieve. “That is also the message of democracy,” says Dr. Nichols. “I think being able to play this music is great practice for those skills that we can also take to the public square as we interact with other people, especially those that see the world differently than we do.”
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BYU Synthesis performs onstage
Photo by Photo by Trent R.K. Robinson
Dr. Nichols is grateful for the assistance of Mark Ammons (bandleader of several jazz ensembles and assistant director of the School of Music) and Ron Saltmarsh (composer and head of commercial music) in building up the BYU jazz program.

Watch Cosmo the Cougar and Ray Smith conduct Synthesis's performance of "Gibraltar" by Freddie Hubbard (arranged by Mike Kamuf) in the video player below.

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