Berning Up the Stage: Students Play Swiss Jazz Fest

The Ben Flocks Quartet, one of seven New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music student groups to play this year's Bern International Jazz Festival.

Bern, Switzerland: medieval churches, quaint footbridges, elaborate cuckoo clocks, and cutting-edge jazz? Although it might not quite jibe with its surroundings, the Bern International Jazz Festival has become a draw for the world’s most influential jazz musicians. And this spring, for the third year in a row, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music is playing a starring role. In fact, the New School ensembles are the only students at this year’s festival.

Our previous appearances were such a success that the organizers of the Bern festival were eager to have us back,, says Phillip Ballman, coordinator of Special Programs at New School Jazz. It’s testament to the fact that our students are playing on a level that places them near some of the best in the field.,

Seven ensembles from The New School are performing at this year’s festival, which runs from March 11 to May 21. The New School musicians are appearing in programs with jazz greats like Ahmad Jamal, Carmen Lundy, and the Bob Wilbur Young Generation All-Stars. Playing three gigs a day, five days a week, the student groups get intensive performance experience. They also get the chance to listen to some of the greatest artists in the field and talk with them musician to musician.

I’ve been listening to Ahmad Jamal since I first started checking out jazz recordings in middle school, so it was inspiring to meet one of my heroes and hear his band every night for an entire week,, says Jazz student Ben Flocks, who led the Ben Flocks Quartet with Brianna Thomas in performances April 3’10. [Jamal] and his group members were incredibly supportive of us, they came over to the tent between their sets to listen to us and give us tips.,

The Bern dates also give the New Schoolers hands-on training in living the musician’s life. Being a professional musician means being a traveler,, says Ballman. And the stakes are even higher when you’re doing it internationally. Bern gives us a chance to teach professionalism and responsibility.,

That union of professional and artistic education epitomizes the approach of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year. Since its founding, the division has made connecting emerging musicians with established artists central to its curriculum.

It’s a philosophy whose ability to motivate young artists is evident at Bern. Describing the chance to see Ahmad Jamal play as inspiring,, Flocks says that watching the jazz legend fueled his own artistic drive: It gave us energy to give it our all during our next sets.,