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Babson + Beyond

Harry Campbell/theispot.com

Illustration: Harry Campbell/theispot.com

Jazz in the Basement

To find the music, you have to know where to look. First, go to Park Manor Central and open the side door near Roger’s Pub. Then walk down the stairs until you can’t walk anymore. There you’ll find a tucked-away rehearsal space full of musical equipment: drums, keyboards, assorted amplifiers. With its unadorned walls and fluorescent lights just strong enough to beat away the darkness, the room feels subterranean. But this is a place for collaboration, exploration, and taking risks. In short, this is a place for jazz.

On a Tuesday evening near the end of the spring semester, Clayton DeWalt puts the Babson Music Collective through its paces. “I have a new composition,” says DeWalt, the group’s director, as he hands out sheet music to the student musicians. The piece is Epistrophy by Thelonious Monk, and DeWalt goes about the nitty-gritty work of hammering out each musician’s part. Once the students are ready to give the tune a whirl, DeWalt counts, “one, two, three, four,” and off they go.

DeWalt came to Babson in January to launch the collective. He doesn’t find anything unusual about playing jazz at a business school. “It makes sense to me,” says DeWalt, a doctoral candidate at New England Conservatory and a freelance trombonist who plays throughout New England. “Improvisation and entrepreneurship go hand in hand.” The collective’s goal is to give students a place where they can grow and take chances as musicians. “The most challenging part is convincing people to be open-minded about what they can do on their instrument,” DeWalt says. “It takes time.”

Olivia Belitsky ’17 plays the vibraphone in the band. She took up the instrument in her middle school orchestra, though she originally wanted to play drums or piano. “There were three drummers and five piano players, so my band director decided to put me on vibraphone instead,” she says. “I had never heard of a vibraphone.” As she plays, she holds four mallets that seem to hover over the bars like magic wands, conjuring up notes that swirl around the room. “The vibraphone is a beautiful blend of piano and percussion,” she says.

Chris Bruno ’17 plays saxophone and piano. After the band takes on Epistrophy, he gets to shine on You Know Just Because, a moody piece by Jim Black that makes one think of shadows and dark streets. “It sounds like something that should be in a Quentin Tarantino movie,” Bruno says. Bruno’s musical education first focused on classical music, but then at the age of 13 he took a jazz lesson. “After that lesson, I realized there was more to music than just reading notes on a page,” he says. As he plays You Know Just Because, Bruno blows his tenor sax softly, more a whisper than a blare. “That’s perfect,” DeWalt tells him.

Sitting behind the drum kit, Dara Behjat ’15 takes in the scene. While his bandmates try out new pieces, he holds the music together and moves it forward. “As a drummer, you get to listen to everyone else in the band,” Behjat says. “You are the foundation of the rhythm, and you witness people’s artistic expression before you.” Behjat played drums in high school, though he started out singing in the chorus. He soon grew tired of that, so he switched to the jazz band and fell in love. “I believe it is one of the only genres of music where you have a conversation,” he says. “You listen, respond, yell, argue, whisper through the music.”

When the musicians reconvene this fall, they hope to perform often, to bring the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants thrill of jazz to campus audiences. “That’s the beauty of jazz,” Belitsky says. “No two performances are the same.” —John Crawford