Patrons at Omaha Jitterbugs practiced their swing dancing moves to the music played by the UNO Jazz Band Sept. 7.
The UNO Jazz Band began performing at the Omaha Jitterbugs, a swing dancing club downtown, almost ten years ago. They play at different events throughout the year and provide live music for new and seasoned patrons.
Pete Madsen, the director of jazz studies at UNO, organizes the evening and directs the UNO Big Band that plays during the event.
“It’s a great performance opportunity because it forces us to learn a lot of music in a very short amount of time,” Madsen said. “I do my best to replicate a professional performance environment where students need to be able to sight-read and learn music very quickly and then perform in front of a live audience.”
Madsen said UNO has two big bands, with about 18 students who perform at events. They are often joined by a third big band, the Metropolitan Area Youth Jazz Orchestra, which rehearses on the UNO campus under the guidance of UNO faculty members.
At each event, the band plays swing music, but Madsen said they sometimes branch out from the traditional list of music to interest those of all music types. Students are given about two weeks to learn two hours worth of music that will be played. For the Omaha Jitterbugs’ most recent event, the Jitterbug Jamborama, the top UNO band will be playing, which consists of almost 20 students.
“We have a huge library of music that we draw from,” Madsen said. “Over the years, we have built up a repertoire from which we can choose. The older students know the music so, the younger students can learn it more quickly by performing next to the veterans. But we are also constantly adding new music to our set lists to challenge the returning players as well.”
The bands normally play the events from 9 p.m. to midnight, but during Jitterbug Jamborama they played a shorter set from 9 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. and a headliner band took over until 2 a.m. The band receives donations from Omaha Jitterbugs every time they play, which goes toward their fees of travel, sheet music and equipment that is used each year.
Students who play during the event are encouraged to partake in the dancing while they take a break between sets. Those who choose not to dance can sit back and enjoy the impressive dance moves the patrons have been rehearsing for years.
“I have done events at the [Omaha] Jitterbugs before,” trombone player and UNO student Luke Annis said. “My favorite part is getting to play for an audience that is up dancing and interacting with the music in a different way than they would be sitting in a concert hall.”
This year, the top UNO band, Jazz One, will be focusing on the music of Count Basie, who was a popular big band conductor in the 1930s and 40s. The UNO Jazz Band will be performing all of the music from “Atomic Basie” in the spring.
The UNO Jazz Band will be performing Nov. 2 and Dec. 7 at Omaha Jitterbugs for students and anyone interested in the art of swing dancing to enjoy.
UNO Band member Jake Senff performs as couples dance. Photo by Maria Nevada