Photos by Kevin Weinstein
Lounging in the living room of their apartment, the five seniors who make up Buddha’s Belly, the most popular of Northwestern’s many campus bands, are hard to take seriously. They pass around beers, poke fun at each other and laugh — a lot.
But when it comes to performing, any of the musicians in this self-proclaimed “jazz-jam-funk-rock” band will tell you it’s no laughing matter.
Whether they’re rocking out with wild rhythms and crazy lyrics to a rowdy standing-room-only crowd or showing off their skills with sweet jazz riffs for a throng of attentive onlookers, the young men in Buddha’s Belly have high hopes their band will go places. And they are dedicated to doing everything in their power to get there.
They and the fledgling student artists in other bands are equally committed to doing things their way. Increasingly these groups choose to foster their own musical styles instead of participating in traditional University-run ensembles. Creating innovative sounds often with cutting-edge music technology, these performers find a home with audiences at Northwestern and often gain acclaim within the Chicago music scene.
Just ask Buddha’s Belly. In their third year of Northwestern performances, the seniors, who fondly remember their first campus appearances at coffeehouses, fraternity parties and Hillel, are now playing gigs all over the Midwest and attracting a crowd of at least 250 every time they perform.
“When we first got started, only a few people were in the audience, and they were all our friends,” says guitarist and vocalist Daniel Golden of Bellingham, Wash. “But now, we hardly recognize anyone, and we think that’s a good sign.”
Students in bands aren’t the only ones with a growing fan base outside of Evanston. Senior Jeff Shuter, who produces electronic hip-hop and dance music tracks under the pseudonym “jephreee,” modestly started off his first year at the University performing at tailgate get-togethers, apartment dance parties and Dillo Day. Three years later he has released his first CD, “metaphysik,” and has a full-length music video. Last fall he went on a Chicago-area tour under the sponsorship of local promoter Star69 Events that culminated in being signed by Act 2 Records. His studio has accumulated close to $30,000 in computer and sound equipment, including a half-dozen keyboards and synthesizers.
“Freshman year, I hauled my equipment everywhere and was that guy who just showed up and wanted to play,” says Shuter, turning up the volume on his newest single, which combines a heavy bass beat with dramatic computer-altered female vocals. “Then I found a promoter in the city, and I started to get out of the Northwestern setting. But I will always love performing at off-campus apartment dance parties, because it’s where I got my start.”
Through their tireless desire to perform, these artists have provided Northwestern students with new outlets for music appreciation — not to mention a good time.
“All you have to do is walk around, and you can hear sounds almost any time of day, not just near the music school but in off-campus houses or through the windows of dorm rooms,” says School of Music dean Bernard Dobroski (GMu81). “The arts are central to education, and finding them outside of the classroom environment is something that makes Northwestern so special.”
However, student music groups are not just assets to the University. They are outlets for performers’ creative energy and serve as an alternative to the day-to-day classical theory studied in the music school.
“The classes you take in the music school are like eating your vegetables,” says Felix Moreno, a senior bass major from Houston, who plays in the electronic band Future Rock. “The band is what I love. I’m much freer playing with these guys in this environment, where there aren’t any rules.”
It is vitally important for students to find these musical outlets outside of the University, says senior lecturer and highly regarded jazz pianist Michael Kocour, because it will boost their confidence and prepare them for the autonomy of being composers and performers later on in their careers.
“When they put the band together and go into the studio, they can say, ‘This is our music. This isn’t something spoon-fed to us by teachers, and it isn’t just following directions. This is us, and we discovered it,’” Kocour says.
As for acceptance of rock as an art form, these musicians say they have received a disappointing reaction from the music school and University-run ensembles. Kocour says institutions of higher learning often seem less than thrilled with rock as a discipline because the music tends to be easier to perform than traditional classical music.
“Right now most rock that is popular does not challenge the musician,” Kocour says. “But it’s undeniable that rock ’n’ roll is an important element in the world culture, and the University struggles to find a way to embrace it in a way that is a craft, a discipline.”
Most professors agree that the best way to prepare young musicians is with a classical and jazz background because the chances of making it as a full-fledged rock musician are slim. “To make a career in music, you have to learn how to be versatile, to be a journeyman musician,” Kocour says. “You have to be able to cover a lot of different situations and have the technique to conform to many styles.”
But other Northwestern faculty, such as associate professor Scott Lipscomb, coauthor of Rock and Roll: Its History and Stylistic Development (Pearson Education, 2002), believe a rock program lies in the future — if for no other reason than the precedent jazz set.
“Back in the 1940s, it was typical that performers of traditional music snubbed jazz, but today jazz is an integral part of the academic environment,” Lipscomb says. “My prediction is that across the institutes of higher education, rock will be taken much more seriously as time goes on.”
Even those student performers who seem disillusioned with the University admit they have gained important theory and performance skills from their classes. Evan Cobb, a senior music major and saxophonist from Ridgewood, N.J., who plays with Buddha’s Belly, says private lessons in particular have spurred his development. A personal instructor has helped him home in on problem areas and challenging techniques, making Cobb a more well-rounded and experienced performer.
And Shuter, who hails from Fox Point, Wis., and is enrolled in the School of Communication, reports that his classes have honed his skills as a performer and an artist. “It’s been amazing to me to get together with my professors and discuss the parallels between acting and music, and between storytelling and music,” Shuter says, noting that he has learned to make his music better by thinking of each piece as having a plot, numerous subplots and a climax. “The Northwestern community has been really supportive, and in the process, some of my teachers have actually grown to like my work.”
But Shuter notes that musicians often thrive on teaching themselves. Whether it is figuring out a complicated technical pattern or making a new and original sound, some things are better learned outside the classroom.
“It may take me eight hours to figure out one detail in my music, but I love that sense of discovery and that sense of achievement,” Shuter says. “It’s something you can’t get from a textbook, and it keeps me constantly interested and challenged.”
Many of these student performers hope to keep the out-of-classroom learning flowing post-graduation, as they pursue careers in music. Despite the financial risks, the members of Buddha’s Belly will move into a house together in Chicago next year and play as many shows as they can to make ends meet — and, they hope, to make it big.
“To be honest, this band is the only thing I really give a damn about,” Cobb says. “We’re lucky to have found each other, and we’re not going to give up yet.”
Emily Ramshaw (J03) of McLean, Va., is an editorial intern at Northwestern magazine.
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