A-one and a-two … memories of EMU JAZZ and SWING SISTERS

The jazz ensemble, started in 1982 by Professor Stephen Sachs, were known on and off campus for their style and skill. Here they are in 2000.

Dr. Stephen Sachs led the Eastern Mennonite University Jazz Band from 1982 through 2004, when he left EMU to become chair of the music department at Belhaven University, a position he still holds.

Dr. Sachs was pleased to hear of the jazz band’s revitalization in 2017 and shared some memories of his time at EMU.

“The relationships formed in the group are priceless, and using the ensemble to share the gospel even more so,” he said. “I have a big soft spot in my heart for the ensemble and the many, many students that participated!”

1989 Jazz Band

If you were a jazz band member or a Swing Sister or simply a fan during this time, we’d love to hear about your experiences. We’d also like to hear more about the small jazz combos that continued post-2004 with adjunct Mark Whetzel and others. Share with us!

To read about the current EMU jazz band, revitalized in spring 2017, click here.

In his own words: the beginnings

EMU Jazz was started during the 1982-1983 academic year, growing out of a wind ensemble that I conducted briefly. At first, I volunteered time, but as the ensemble took good root and proved its merit, I was awarded faculty load time. Remember that instrumental music wasn’t allowed on campus prior to 1963, so that gives a little context for this particular group. The jazz band gained a lot of acceptance both on campus and off, as the years went by.

The Swing Sisters, an auxiliary vocal ensemble, singing 3- and 4-part close harmony (jazz) with some solo and scatting opportunities, was added in the 1983-84 academic year to make the big band different from the Goshen College Jazz Ensemble.

Standards and more

We first performed standards of the Big Band Era (1940s) as well as commercially available arrangements/compositions appropriate to the level of the ensemble. Eventually, we performed many arrangements of Christian hymns and songs by Ralph Carmichael made available by Chris McDonald in Nashville and Ralph Carmichael. I adapted many of the “charts” to include the Swing Sisters.

Local performances expand

EMU Jazz and Swing Sisters first performed at EMU men’s and women’s basketball games and at an annual spring concert. Eventually, the ensemble added local performances at area churches, public schools, Eastern Mennonite High School, at a Christmas Coffeehouse in the Campus Center, for WVPT Public Television, civic clubs, for chapels. We also traveled to the Mennonite Youth Convention (St. Louis), the Mennonite Health Convention, and numerous churches and Christian schools throughout the northeast, southeast and mid-west during what became an annual spring break tour.

Bubble Sisters Crystal Lahman, Rhea Roggie and Heidi Kurtz.

The ensemble’s concert appearances gradually grew to 25 or more per year.  The jazz band and Swing Sisters also produced and sold six CDs of their final six concerts in Lehman Auditorium, 1999-2004.

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EMU’s devotion to jazz music continued after 2004 to the present under the direction of Mark Whetzel and others. The new jazz big band was initiated by student request in spring 2017, and has played several informal concerts and a formal concert as well as been the featured musicians at inaugural events.

If you were a jazz band member or a Swing Sister or simply a fan during this time, we’d love to hear about your experiences. We’d also like to hear more about the small jazz combos that continued post-2004 with adjunct Mark Whetzel and others. Share with us!