Oberlin Jazz Musicians Take on Manhattan


Chris Lee

The Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble played a double set at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in New York City over Winter Term.

This January, Oberlin traveled to New York City to perform at some of the most famous musical venues in the country. The Oberlin Orchestra and Choir returned to Carnegie Hall — this time with R. Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses — Jan. 20, and the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble performed a double set at the iconic Dizzy’s Jazz Club at Lincoln Center Jan. 19. While in New York City, the Sonny Ensemble also toured New York’s Elisabeth Irwin High School, LaGuardia High School, Sunset Park Prep Middle School, Special Music School High School, and the Jazz House Kids in Montclair, NJ. 

Founded on a commitment to service and a generous donation by jazz legend Sonny Rollins, the group prides itself on its mission to make community-based music. The ensemble visited schools ranging from elite arts high schools to schools in lower-income neighborhoods with limited access to music education. At each, the group played its repertoire, took questions from the students, and even performed with the students themselves. Second-year drummer Noah Nelson recounted that these school performances came with a unique and memorable energy. 

“There was some kid who just got up and started to sing with the band,” Nelson said. “I think he was also this kind of shy kid but he just got up and started scatting and it ignited the rest of the kids in the audience.”

The group, composed of eight Jazz students chosen by faculty, then performed two sold-out hour-long sets with a program that featured both jazz standards and originals alike. One such original composition, titled “Homecoming,” was written by first-year alto saxophonist George Rogers. The lyrics, added to accommodate the vocalist of the group, are inspired by a short story about a knight in shining armor written by a high school friend of Rogers’.

“There’s a moment in the story when the knight takes off his helmet and it’s raining and he sticks out his tongue and drinks the rain,” Rogers said.

Rogers expressed his enthusiasm at the chance to have his piece performed at such an iconic venue and his initial surprise upon hearing that his piece had moved audience members.

“That’s, like, the best thing anyone can say to me, honestly,” Rogers said. “It showed me that it’s digestible to people who might not even be familiar with this kind of music.”

The Oberlin Jazz department performances also featured another performer, fourth-year vocalist Tyreek McDole, who made his Dizzy’s debut in a late night show and jam session following the Sonny Ensemble with two additional performances Jan. 20 and 21. Although McDole’s debut was originally scheduled for the fall of 2022 while he was studying away in New York City and interning with Jazz at Lincoln Center, the timing could not have ended up better. 

“It was really cool because it felt like I’m just amongst my peers,” McDole said. “I was kind of inspired because it’s like I’m doing this in a professional sense and so are they, you know, we’re both coming from the same school. … You can’t get rid of Oberlin.” 

Not only did McDole’s debut coincide with the Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble performance, but McDole also participated in the Oberlin Choir and Orchestra’s performance of The Ordering of Moses at Carnegie Hall. 

“Carnegie Hall was really incredible,” McDole said. “I mean, the fact that I was in such a prestigious hall that so many of my heroes played in — like, John Horan played on that stage; Louis Armstrong played on that stage; Duke Ellington played on that stage. The list keeps going on, and now I’m a part of that lineage. It was a huge honor.” 

When the concert at Carnegie ended, McDole headed over to Dizzy’s for the second night of his set. 

“It was like night and day,” McDole said. “I would say two different cultural values were held in both of those spaces, but both have such a reverence for the music that’s being played in the artistry of that space.” 

The Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble concert and tour, coupled with the choirs’ and orchestra’s performance at Carnegie and McDole’s solo debut at Dizzy’s, led to a weekend filled with Oberlin community, support, and music-making, concluding Winter Term 2023 on a beautiful note.