Hope professor taking Lakeshore jazz to the next level with new orchestra

Jordan VanHemert is giving back to the community that fostered his love of music.

The Hope College professor is the leader behind the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra, which is bringing high-quality jazz performances and learning along the Lakeshore.

“So the whole idea is that this group would be kind of a force for jazz advocacy on the Lakeshore, without people having to go elsewhere to get it,” VanHemert says. 

Jordan VanHemert and Keith Walker review music. Photo by Shandra MartinezHe looks youthful and casual in black Chuck Taylors as musicians start to arrive in the rehearsal space at Hope’s Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts in downtown Holland. On this snowy Sunday evening, band members have driven in from across West Michigan. 

As VanHemert talks, a Michigan State University student is riffing on the grand piano next to him, giving the professor’s words an almost lyrical quality.

In less than two years, the group has drawn professional musicians from as far as Lansing and Kalamazoo. 

“There are a lot of great musicians in the area, but they focus their talents on Grand Rapids,” VanHemert says. “For my students at Hope and who I teach privately, I thought they shouldn't have to go to Grand Rapids because some of them can't.” 

Mentor helping mission

Assisting VanHemert on this mission of bringing jazz to the Lakeshore is Keith Walker, who was his Zeeland High School band teacher and one of his early mentors. Their roles have changed. Walker is now retired, and VanHemert teaches jazz and saxophone at Hope.

Keith Walker performs with the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra. Photo by J&V Photography“At this stage in my career, it’s great to be able to do something positive with people I worked with a really long time ago,” says VanHemert, who graduated from Zeeland West in 2007.

Since then, he has earned three degrees in music, including his doctorate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Last year, the group launched its inaugural high school jazz soloist festival, which gives out music camp scholarships to the top performers. All participants get a clinic on stage after their performance. 

“We have an educationally driven mission. That's one of the things that I really care about in terms of advocacy,” says VanHemert, who serves as conductor of the group of about 20 musicians.

Nonprofit raising awareness, funds

The nonprofit has accomplished a lot without funding from grants and other sources.

“At the moment, we are in the infancy, as they say,” says Walker, a trumpet player in the orchestra. “We're trying to raise money and we're trying to raise awareness.”

The orchestra is intended to complement the jazz bands at area high schools and colleges by offering the next level for performance and listening opportunities. 

Eventually, the group would like to create a youth jazz orchestra that provides a way to enhance local high school music programs, says Walker, who is also the chair of the organization’s board. 

The power of music

Hope College Professor Jordan VanHemert performs. Photo by Johan SungVanHemert also sees an opportunity to show people of all ages the power of music. The group is part of the West Michigan Mental Health Foundation. He developed a program that shows students the power that music can have to help them through times of emotional difficulties.

In partnership with the Be Nice chapter, the group has performed for students at Holland West, an elementary school in the city of Holland.

“Music can be a protective factor that can help in stressful and emotionally trying times, so the idea is to encourage students to find their own protective factors, and we wanted to share ours, which is making music,” VanHemert says.

Expanding reputation

The group’s reputation is growing beyond the Lakeshore. Grand Rapids musician Derek Brown invited the new orchestra to perform on his upcoming jazz album.

Brown, a tenor saxophonist, graduated from Hope College in ‘06. The release concert for his album “All Figured Out” is slated for June 7 at the newly opened Listening Room in Grand Rapids.

“One of the biggest things I liked about this group is they have a very open mind and are willing to try new things,” Brown says. “Even though it's a big band album, it's definitely far from a traditional jazz swing album like ’40s and ’50s big band-era stuff. It's pretty contemporary, and everyone seems to be really going for it, so I can't ask for a better group.”

Saxophonist Derek Brown rehearses. Photo by Shandra MartinezJazz, which originated more than a century ago on the streets of New Orleans, is considered the quintessential American art form. Inspired by the fusion of Western European classical music traditions and African culture, jazz is considered the baseball of music.

“What makes jazz special is the improvisational nature of the music because there is a lot more freedom to do things that aren’t on the written page,” Walker explains. 

Enriching cultural landscape

Under VanHemert’s direction, the orchestra’s mission is to enrich the cultural landscape of the Lakeshore community through high-quality performances, whether at schools, nursing homes or at larger venues, like the Park Theatre in downtown Holland. 

“So really, it's all about making music in the community where you're at,” says VanHemert, “And I am working with a lot of different people in town to make that happen.”

Learn more about the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra at HollandCJO.org

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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