Every inch of the stage in the Student Union was crowded with the performers and instruments of the 40-student Stony Brook Live jazz ensemble. They filled the giant theater with sound, energy and the sheer force of their performance for an audience of seven people.
Five members of the audience were from the marching band. Two were parents. But the sparse turnout didn’t seem to faze the group. They launched into their opening piece with a gusto they maintained throughout their two-hour showcase, even as the applause breaks struggled to reciprocate the volume of the performance.
Stony Brook Live’s secretary and saxophone player, Courtney Ladowski, explained the scene from their Nov. 20 event simply. “It means the world to us to see people enjoying us,” she said.
SB Live was Stony Brook’s only pep band until 2006, when the university started an official athletic band. Since then, the ensemble has shifted its focus to jazz, but it has always maintained the same school spirit, energy and passion for entertaining students.
This is the busiest time of their semester, when requests from clubs start coming in back to back. “We actually get asked by a bunch of different clubs around campus to do events,” said president and saxophone player Chris Valentino. “ We’ll go for a week or so, two week not having a gig to having a gig every night.”
And that’s the way they like it. The week before their last event, they played on the same stage to a packed crowd for the Sigma Beta honor society talent show, raising money for cancer research, and they’ll perform at many more events before the end of the semester.
Sophomore music major and trombone player Dan Wood said his love of music is two-fold. “I love to make people see what the vision is and to have them be a part of it,” he said. “But there’s also an aspect of ‘look at what I can do,’ and it’s those two things—I’m not sure which I like more.”
Like many members of SB Live, Wood started performing early in life. He began singing when he was four and taught himself piano when he was 10. He picked up trombone in elementary school and now also plays bass guitar. During the intermission, he switched his trombone out for the keyboard to jam out on Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon,” casually switching back to trombone when the concert resumed. Just watching him, one gets the sense that he could pick up an instrument on the stage.
“Music is, for me, what brings everything else together,” Wood said. “It’s a way of not making people think what you think, but feel what you feel.”
For Ladowski, playing saxophone is something she does for herself. She played jazz all throughout high school and middle school, and even met her best friend through the band. They were in different grades, and rehearsals were the only times that their schedules lined up.
“It’s always been an outlet for me and something I use to express myself,” Ladowski said.
Ladowski is graduating in the spring, but she said she would probably stay involved with Stony Brook Live if she continues on to graduate school at Stony Brook. Backstage during the Sigma Beta talent show, she went outside to answer a call and then quietly told the band they had just secured $14,995.50 from the Undergraduate Student Government for new equipment. There was pride in her barely-contained whisper.
Stony Brook Live rehearses every Thursday for 2 1/2 hours in the Student Activities Center, practicing for performances, tackling new pieces and jamming out. Their range is extensive, and their repertoire includes classics like “Birdland” and “Gospel John”, alongside modern pop like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”. The entire band votes on the music they play, and some is even arranged or composed by students for the ensemble.
Valentino said his role as president during rehearsals is, for the most part, just keeping everyone on the same page. “It’s really just a test to how much people really want to play well and want to perform that we can have a student run club function so well and sounding so great,” he said.
Both Valentino and Ladowski recalled a talent show the band played in 2012 called All The World’s a Stage. There was nothing particularly special about the event, which was a fundraiser for cancer care at the Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. But something clicked when they went on stage.
The band played one of their favorite songs, “Brooklyn” by Youngblood Brass Band, and the audience went wild. They went backstage feeling good about their performance, but didn’t know that they would be leaving with a massive four-foot trophy to boot. They now call themselves an award-winning ensemble.
“I remember laughing so hard when we got that trophy and just holding it,” Ladowski said. “It was more than half the size of me.”
Many of the students in SB Live also play in the university’s marching band and pep band, but the group also gives musicians who play instruments like bass guitar and soprano saxophone that aren’t in the marching band the chance to perform and make music with other people. It doesn’t matter what your skill level is, as long as you can read music. “We’ll take care of the rest,” Valentino said.
Regardless of the musicians or the music, it’s all about the audience. “They really seem to like what we do,” Valentino said. And from the way they were clapping, you could tell the seven people in the seats of the Student Union theater agreed.