Arts & Features Staff Writer
Fall break permitted itself a small vacation for most members of the UNC Asheville community, but students in the music department instead learned how to navigate the professional world of music first-hand from two working, New York-based musicians.
Grammy-nominated jazz violinist Sara Caswell and drummer Michael W. Davis came to visit UNCA for their residency on campus between Oct. 4 and Oct. 7. The two held a series of classes and performances in Lipinsky Hall which were free and open to the public.
“In my experience, especially as an undergrad, there was so much focus placed on more of the academic side of things,” Caswell said. “I think I would’ve loved to have heard more about what actually happens once you get your degree and you’re sent on your merry way.”
For Caswell, her passion for music started at a young age. Originally from Bloomington, Indiana, she grew up in a house full of music, as both her parents were musicologists.
“There was constantly music in our house,” Caswell said.
Caswell started playing the violin at 5 years old and eventually discovered her preference for classical and jazz. She graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in violin performance and jazz studies and holds a master’s degree in jazz violin from Manhattan School of Music. Caswell has worked with many famous musical artists including Skitch Henderson and Esperanza Spalding.
“One of the key contacts that really opened the door was a gentleman named Skitch Henderson,” Caswell said. Henderson was a well-known pianist for artists including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Mel Torme.
“He founded a pop orchestra called The New York Pops, I think it was 35 years ago now and I got to know him through a mutual friend,” Caswell said. Henderson offered her the opening for the violin section in his orchestra, a great opportunity for young Caswell.
One of the milestones in Caswell’s career happened in January of this year when she was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Improvised Solo. The piece for which she was nominated was called “Can’t Remember Why,” which she performed with a band called The Jazz Surge. While Guitarist John McLaughlin was awarded the Grammy, the experience was still a privilege for her.
“It was quite unexpected and quite the honor. It was just a thrill being part of that project,” Caswell said.
Caswell’s passion for the violin and her passion for jazz combined create a non-traditional approach to the genre.
“The idea of a violin being an improvising instrument in a jazz setting was not welcomed all the time,” Caswell said.
Despite hesitation toward the craft from others, it did not stop Caswell from pursuing violin improvisation. She said it’s important for music students to surround themselves with the right people.
“In general, the idea of finding people who are going to be supportive of your endeavors and are going to give you that nudge and that boost in the direction you are wanting to go, those are the people you want to hang out with,” Caswell said.
Davis also agreed that forming and maintaining relationships with fellow musicians is important. While he was in college, he said he was always in classes, rehearsing with others or spending his free time with musicians.
“I enjoy a lot of different music, but the people that I went to college with are actually my core,” Davis said.
Davis and Caswell became friends through mutual connections in New York. They attended the Manhattan School of Music three months apart from one another. “I was graduating right before he came in but we had friends who were still there,” Caswell said.
Originally from San Jose, California, Davis has been a musician ever since he was young. He moved to New York when he was 18 years old and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in jazz drums from Manhattan School of Music. He has lived in New York City as well as Asheville and is a member of a band called The Broadcast. In 2010, Davis moved with the band from New York to Asheville.
“We really had to get our bearings together and figure it out. We all moved into a house together, the six of us. The only person I knew was Jacob Rodriguez because we went to school together at the Manhattan School of Music,” Davis said.
Rodriguez is a faculty member of the music department at UNCA and a member of the Michael Bublé band. While living in Asheville as a professional musician, Davis says he did many things including side jobs and freelance instructing to make it all work. After a few years, Davis moved back to New York where he currently resides.
For music students who are fresh out of college and ready to pursue their careers, Caswell and Davis said being a good person is what makes you a good musician.
“You want to be a positive person in general. When you’re on a gig, you want to be a positive person because it’s really going to radiate,” Caswell said.
Davis added the relationship between the art and the artist is inherently connected.
“Who you are as a person is who you are as a musician,” Davis said.
When it comes to finding one’s place in the music world, Caswell says it is about following intuition.
“It’s a matter of listening to your gut as far as what speaks to you and recognizing that and not necessarily feeling like you have to be a practitioner of every single style, but that there’s going to be something that really resonates with you and to listen to that and go with it,” Caswell said.
Will Younts, drummer and senior jazz student at UNCA, directly works with Davis as one of his students.
“It’s a pretty unique thing to get people who are at their level who live in New York and to get those perspectives,” Younts said. “Being a good person means being a good musician, that’s the biggest thing.”