Arts, Arts Features

All That Jazz: The History and Evolution of BC bOp!

When you walk into Conte Forum on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon for a hockey or basketball game, you might hear something you didn’t expect. Sounds from horns, bells, whistles, and tunes echo throughout the main auditorium and halls of Conte, toward the north-facing side of the building, near the Gate C entrance. You can just make out the first couple notes of Frank Sinatra’s classic “Come Fly with Me.”

“If the Boston College band is playing in the stands, who could that possibly be?” you might ask.

And the answer is BC bOp!, BC’s one and only jazz ensemble, amid of one of its twice-weekly two-hour practices.

Sebastian Bonauito, the BC Bands and BC bOp! director, stands at the front of the somewhat open rehearsal space. Tubas line the back wall. Drums are secured behind locked cages. In the middle of the room sit the majority of BC bOp!’s instrumentalists, taking their cues from Bonauito as he asks them to go through different measures throughout the song.

To an outsider, the group’s rehearsals may seem a bit tense. Bonauito goes back and forth between several measures, pointing out particular notes, and having different combinations of members from the ensemble play a note or two until he feels that the certain segment has been perfected. He doesn’t go through this process in a harsh tone, however. Instead, he speaks softly, noting to the students what precisely they’re doing incorrectly and correctly.

“State of mind is always essential when you’re playing music,” Bonauito said, trying to explain to one student how he should focus both on playing his own instrument, and on the intricate sounds of the instrument being played behind him.

As the rehearsal goes on, Bonauito proceeds through bits and pieces of “Come Fly with Me” in the same manner, focusing in on individual students and larger sections of the ensemble, pointing out to them when he hears what he’s looking for and what needs more improvement. Again, to an outsider, this can all sound like very detailed, almost obsolete instruction, but it is apparent that Bonauito’s students are picking up all of his criticisms and praise readily.

They do not seem insulted or  wronged when Bonauito focuses his feedback. Instead, they are perfectly attentive to the point at hand, and do their best to adjust their playing accordingly, no matter how minute the change might appear.

This scene is emblematic of the dedication, attention, and love that bOp! students put into their art. At a bOp! concert, the whole performance seems masterfully put together. The apparent ease with which the ensemble members deliver the music in front of them is deceptive. Sure, bOp! members enjoy their work and are especially skilled at their individual components of the whole ensemble, but there’s more than a fair share of hard work and practice going on behind the scenes.

Over the years, Bonauito has juggled teaching his ensemble’s members both the notes they are going to perform and the dedication that students must put into their craft if they really hope to perfect it. He highlights the fact that, working at BC, he feels like he can always depend on two things from musicians he hopes to pick up: that they’re smart and usually open to the commitment necessary to be a part of bOp!. There is, however, one aspect of working at BC that hasn’t always made recruiting students to play in the jazz ensemble an easy job.

“The interest has been consistent relative to the pool of musicians coming to BC each year,” Bonauito said. “Since Boston College doesn’t have a specific music school, there is not that attractor for a consistent number of musicians to come in. So we really rely on the law of averages. Sometimes it works really well for us, sometimes it doesn’t.”

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Despite this drawback of bOp!’s recruiting process, the group has alwaysbrought in talent to fill the ensemble’s constantly rotating seats. Since 1987, bOp! has been a home for students looking for an exciting facet of BC’s arts landscape in which to express their love for music and performance. Though the band has faced years when it has lost a lot of great students, it has also consistently found new talent to constantly evolve both the face of the group and the music that it delivers to the BC community and beyond.

Back in 1987, David Healey, a BC student at the time and now the assistant director of Bands, approached Bonauito, hoping that he would direct an ensemble of students that Healey would gather together. BC did not have a jazz ensemble at the time. These students, without funding from the school, performing with their own instruments, formed the first iteration of bOp!. That school year, Healey found bOp! a spot on the Robsham stage in the spring. Since then, bOp! has had at least one show a year in the ever-so-difficult-to-book theater.

At its first show, Bonauito recorded the group’s performance and sent the tape he had to agents down at Disney World in Orlando. The people at Disney were so impressed with what they heard that they booked BC bOp! five performances over six days at various venues around the park. This invitation set a precedent for the group of traveling and performing around the country that’s been upheld over its nearly three-decade career.

Over the years, bOp! has performed all over the country. It has played in competitions like the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho and the Reno Jazz Festival in Nevada. bOp! has placed in finals or won both of these competitions. For the past three years, bOp! has gone down to New York City in the spring to do a series of workshops and clinics with some New York’s best musicians, as well as to attend some of city’s premier jazz concerts. This year, the group is planning on traveling to Nashville in the spring, and it already played at a smaller jazz festival in New Hampshire.

This aspect of bOp! can be seen as just one example of the amount of dedication these students put into the ensemble. Students are asked to pay for their own transportation and food on these trips, though the BC Bands program takes care of students’ lodging these days. While these aspects of their work, along with the practice that must go into perfecting the music the students produce, make being apart of bOp! sound almost harrowing, both Bonauito and the students find a multitude of rewarding experiences come out of their time with the ensemble.

“There are so many talented musicians in the group who I see on stage one day and in class the next, and that never ceases to amaze me,” said Mike Mastellone, a vocalist and CSOM ’18. “The fact that I know the band to consist of peers who are full-time students just like myself is something that makes the group very special.”

In a sense, the students that make up bOp! see the group as a sort of family. They spend a lot of time together between the road and performing and practicing on campus. Each student appears to hold a fascination with his or her colleagues’ talents, and each student is proud to be one cog in the holistic machine that is bOp!. This camaraderie is apparent at bOp! shows on campus, especially when soloists step up for their moments in the spotlight. At these shows and in these moments, one can see bOp! members encouraging each other, sharing a small laugh, and congratulating each other on the performance they all came together to give their audience.

One such show, traditionally bOp!’s last of the year, where these dynamics and many more within and outside the band are all on display, is the Arts Fest’s Dancing with bOp!. At the event, bOp! performs live for a number of different BC dance crews. With this eclectic gathering of BC dance crews comes a range of genres of music that must be adapted and adopted by the jazz ensemble. Working with dance groups like Masti, BCID, and B.E.A.T.S., bOp! must learn to work with pieces in Hindi pop, the traditional Celtic style, and hip-hop and rap.

Bonauito noted that, while it is difficult for the group to adapt these different genres to the ensemble’s style, bOp! members are perfectly happy to put in the effort needed to master the performance and that they are more than rewarded for the work they put into memorizing the set. This, Bonauito said, is not only secluded to the Dancing with bOp! performance at the end of the year, but that it is apparent to him throughout the entirety of the year and over the years.

“Watching these students grow is huge,” he said. “When I can sit back and say, ‘This is so joyful, not just for me, but visibly for them.’ To see them perform so well and to really enjoy what they’re doing after seeing all the work they’ve put into what they’re doing—two thumbs up.”

November 10, 2016