Jazz at Holmes: the intersection of classical music and modern jazz


Musicians perform at the Jazz at Holmes Lounge on Thursday nights in 2015. The weekly event attracts students and members of the public to relax and enjoy the music.

St. Louis is not an “industrial” city or a lifeblood of jazz, but our little corner of campus is home to a community of jazz lovers. Jazz at Holmes is a 21-year tradition started by William Lenihan, director of jazz studies, music teacher and jazz combo host.

Professor Lenihan returned to the Holmes Lounge after a year-long interlude – due, of course, to COVID-19 – with pianist Ptah Williams and Steve Davis. While Lenihan played bass guitar at this event, he is frequently found on piano and classical guitar. Unsurprisingly, the trio’s return to the living room resulted in a large and energetic crowd of students, faculty and community members.

Professor Lenihan recognizes that the perception of jazz has evolved and changed over the generations and unfortunately in the St. Louis area there is little access to this new type of jazz because it is not all. simply more popular. If you were to pop your head to the Holmes Lounge on Thursday, you might not get the swing and dance band that you quickly associate with traditional jazz; you may not even be able to categorize the music you hear. Instead, you’ll hear a more exploratory type of jazz with familiar classical music undertones.

“Jazz is diverse and the experimental elements don’t always match what people automatically think of jazz,” says Lenihan.

Jazz has always been about improvisation, and this era of music is no different. What is unique is what the improvisation is based on. In the most recent performance, the musicians had scores of classical compositions. They used their knowledge of classical music to transform the experience of jazz into something contemporary. Lenihan describes this project as “unusual” for the program due to the number of historic business opportunities it is achieving.

The notion of jazz as an experience has always been true. Because it’s so improvised, there has to be some kind of communication between the musicians that makes them follow each other. It is the hidden and unspoken language of music.

“We [as a band] look at a chord and can pause or choose to hold it, so it’s like this invisible conversation about how you’re going to take music and extrapolate from it. It is as if we read the same paragraph and then say “let’s talk about it”. You won’t say the exact same thing, but you will use the same information.

There is no right or wrong in jazz, so the experimental aspect comes naturally. Professor Lenihan explains how modern concerts have such a specific and divided demographics, but events like this attract a diverse population.

“We make an effort to really invite everyone. This is why we have so many activities; it is about involving students, faculty and the university community as a whole. A lot of people don’t know [the University] is a Mecca for study and practice. It’s sort of an outreach program for the entire St. Louis community.

The Music Department looks forward to presenting many talented jazz musicians for their 75th anniversary. On October 1, the department is hosting a Brookings Quadrangle festival that will bring together two groups, including several famous names in the jazz industry. Additionally, Lenihan will welcome Paul DeMarinis to campus on November 11.

The return of Jazz in Holmes brought together a community of jazz fanatics and introduced a new generation of students to the creativity of music. Jazz in Holmes will continue throughout the semester and perform approximately two to three times per month. While we encourage community members to participate in this event, we hope that your personal safety and that of others is always the first priority. Please make sure to wear masks, social distancing, and doing your daily screening.


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