The heart and soul of WHS’ Jazz Band


Credit: Joseph Oneschuk

Members of the WHS Jazz Band practice their music during third period in school. As the school year comes to a close, Jazz Band director Joseph Oneschuk is hoping others join the ensemble next year. “Jazz Band is open to everybody,” Oneschuk said. “Your past experience doesn’t quite matter. It’s more about what you’re willing to try and to experience with other people.”

Reva Datar

The guitarists, bassists, pianists and drummers practice together while the trumpeters, trombonists, saxophonist and clarinetist practice separately. There’s a section of their piece that hasn’t quite come together, but they won’t stop practicing the challenging phrases until they get it right as a whole, and are satisfied with a better result. Nope, that’s not a jazz club in the heart of New Orleans, it’s the Wayland High School Honors Jazz Ensemble during second block, playing away to “Afro Blue.”

The Jazz Band meets during third period four times per schedule rotation. Although, Jazz Band meets during class time, the members were required to try out for the ensemble and therefore the class. However, next year, musicians will not have to audition because of the new course system, which allows students to sign up for any level of the course.

The Jazz Band provides a sense of musical freedom to its members. From members picking the pieces they play, to self-selecting themselves challenging solos, Jazz Band is a space that fosters musical creativity for its participants.

The members of Jazz Band are often able to experiment with their playing through improvisation, making up music on the spot. Having the ability to improvise music is a skill many musicians learn during their time in the Jazz Band, or develop before joining. Improv requires a high understanding of music theory as players have to quickly come up with chords and melodies that fit a certain theme or key.

“What [improv] does is it forces [the musicians] to communicate with each other, react to one another,” Jazz Band director Joseph Oneschuk said. “It’s a group effort, and yes, it’s a musical thing, but I think it’s also much broader.”

Sophomore Colin McHugh began learning the jazz guitar three years ago, playing for the middle school Jazz Band. He later decided to join the high school band after lots of encouragement from his upperclassman friends.

“What I’ve always liked about jazz is the emphasis on expression,” McHugh said. “Jazz music is written so that it’s really loose, and you can really do anything you want with it. But there’s also a large emphasis on the group setting and the people in the group having a good time.”

Oneschuk also believes that improv challenges musicians to collaborate and work with each other, which models how society might function at its best. But, improv isn’t the only aspect of jazz that can be challenging.

“The most challenging thing in jazz is probably all of the complex rhythms,” Jazz Band bassist junior Emmanuel Nzaramba said. “My favorite thing [about jazz] would have to be how diverse it is and how it manages to be both complex and simple at the same time.”

Despite the challenges that members of the Jazz Band have had to face when learning music and mastering their instruments, all members have a strong passion for the music they play. Though the Jazz Band only meets a few times a week, members will still show up to the band room and practice together when they are not scheduled to meet.

“We meet four times out of the six days [during a schedule rotation], and on the other two days, the jazz band shows up on their own and has a jam session.” Oneschuk said. “[It] is the coolest thing ever and it makes me so happy, and I just try to let them do their thing. With that group, I think the interest of what they’re doing builds and builds and builds.”

Outside of school performances, the Jazz Band has been able to play in front of varying audiences. Recently, the ensemble traveled to Roxbury to play at an event in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. The ensemble played for 45 minutes at a venue they have never performed. Their performance was a challenging and memorable experience.

“It was what I would call a codifying event.” Oneschuk said. “We were so psyched when we got back on the bus and everybody knew they nailed it. I think then, they realized that they got to the next level.”

The MLK event was only one of many unifying activities that Oneschuk had the Jazz Band participate in. After the success of the band at the MLK event, Oneschuk aims to educate the musicians on jazz’s place in today’s society. Oneschuk was extremely conscious of this during the early stages of the pandemic, while racial tensions in the country were high.

As a result, he started a series of masterclasses for the Jazz Band, where he invited black musicians to work with the students.

After their performance at the MLK event in Roxbury, Oneschuk knew what piece he wanted the Jazz Band to play next: “Lift Every Voice and Sing-” the black national anthem. However, a jazz arrangement for this song did not exist.

Thinking of ways to implement his visions, Oneschuk recalled one of the musicians he invited to his masterclasses, professor at the Berklee College of Music, Afro-Cuban pianist and composer Zahili Zamaroa. Oneschuk asked her to write an arrangement for the song.

“Just the fact that [Mr. Oneschuk] is getting her to write the music for us is something that’s really great.” McHugh said. “It’s the black national anthem, so it represents a large group of people that have been really at the forefront of jazz since its creation.”

Zamora has been working with the members of the Jazz Band to understand how she can arrange the parts for the different players and their instruments. The Jazz Band will be the first group to play this version of the piece.

“We’ll be the first ones in the country to play [this arrangement],” Oneschuk said. “And then after we play it, it will be available to students across the country to play in their jazz bands.”

The completed arrangement of the piece will be ready for the Jazz Band in the first week of May. The members of the band have just a month to learn the song and will be playing the piece at graduation in June. Members of the Jazz Band are optimistic about learning the piece in time, all thanks to the group’s dedication to Jazz.

“This year’s jazz band is the strongest group of musicians that I’ve ever been in,” McHugh said. “We are really focused and on topic, and we’re able to do so much in such little time.”