In the final weeks of the 2017-18 academic year, the Howard University Jazz Ensemble (HUJE) has kept a busy schedule.
There was the Easter Jazz Vigil at Peoples United Church of Christ in northwest D.C. Then the ensemble’s spring concert on campus featuring world-renowned jazz saxophonist Gary Bartz. A few days later, they were recording HUJE’s latest album at Bias Studios in Springfield, Va. That was followed by performances at Drexel University in Philadelphia and at the University of the District of Columbia.
Keep in mind that the musicians are students at Howard University, carrying a full academic load. Four of the students in the band are women and two will graduate with honors Saturday.
Women in male-dominated bands or all-female bands aren’t unusual. Dionne Ledbetter, Sterlyn Termine, Krystal Campbell and Jalissa Douglas are the ladies in HUJE. Campbell and Douglas will graduate with honors.
The ladies’ path to a life of jazz music was varied.
For graduating senior Douglas, she grew up with her father playing the music of Louis Armstrong at their home in Long Island, New York.
“He had me learn to play Armstrong by ear,” said Douglas who plays trumpet and flugelhorn. “That’s how I started playing jazz.”
As the ensemble goes through several rounds of performing songs during the recording session at Bias Recording, everything is under the watchful eyes and ears of HUJE founder and director Fred Irby III, a globally respected musician and director who also is principal trumpet for the Kennedy Center Opera House Show Orchestra.
It was Irby who convinced Ledbetter to switch from playing alto saxophone to the baritone. Having played in her high school jazz band in Atlanta, Ledbetter was hesitant.
“I wasn’t sure, because the baritone sax is such a big sound and requires a big capacity for your lungs,” said Ledbetter, a music composition major. “But I pulled it off. I worked hard to get the sound out and now it is one of my favorite instruments.”
Coming from a classical music background, Krystal Campbell found it difficult to make the switch to playing jazz. The Orlando, Fla., native also a graduating senior, got help from the upperclassmen in HUJE. They pointed Campbell, a trombone player, to YouTube videos to study and included her in small group practice sessions called “sectionals.”
Like the other women in HUJE, Campbell has never encountered a problem with being one of the girls in the band.
“Unlike some ensembles I’ve played in, females aren’t viewed as lesser in this band,” she said. “They are very welcoming. That’s what I really love. They are all like big brothers.”
Termine, a freshman tenor saxophone player from Brockton, Mass., is quite comfortable as one of the younger members of HUJE. Playing tenor sax since her sophomore year of high school, Termine is wide-eyed and clear in expressing what she loves about being a jazz musician.
“I like the freedom that it gives me without being confined to things like technique or what is written on the page,” she said. “For me it is more expressive. I like the style, the groove, the soul that it has.”
Each of the young ladies has their career goals in place. After graduating this week from Howard University, Campbell and Douglas want to be public school music teachers in the D.C. area. Douglas specifically would like to be a school band director.
Termine dreams of touring with big-name jazz musicians. Her jazz influences are Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins.
Ledbetter wants to compose television and film scores. She is influenced by legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who has scored more than 500 films, including many “spaghetti westerns” starring Clint Eastwood. He also won a Grammy at age 80 for Quentin Tarantino’s film “The Hateful Eight.”
With parents in the bleachers for Howard’s graduation on Saturday, Campbell and Douglas will walk onto the platform in their caps and gowns for one final university performance with the Howard University Orchestra. For Douglas, she knows her family and friends will be impressed that she has kept playing since the fourth grade.
“Dad is very proud,” she says of her father, who led her to jazz. “Every time he comes to a performance, his face glows.”