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Gambit Weekly Cats in Class

Part 4 of Gambit Weekly's Music Issue.

By Lee Yates

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  UNO's Jazz Studies Program Puts Aspiring Players Through Their Musical Paces.

Like many of his fellow classmates in the Jazz Studies program at the University of New Orleans, Ventittilli practically needs all nine of his lives to get his work done. For the past four years, he has been burning the candle at both ends trying to earn a college degree and live as a professional musician in a city where the competition is as tight as the skin on his snare drum.

When he arrived in New Orleans five years ago, Ventittilli was a man on a mission.

"I came here because I wanted to be a jazz drummer," he says. "I had no practical experience except in my high school band, and I was leading kind of a vagabond's life in Los Angeles. But when I moved to New Orleans, my mind was made up to learn the drums. I had a drum set which had been willed to me by a musically inclined great uncle, and I just hung out where the musicians did and picked up gigs wherever I could."

One night, Ventittilli was playing with some friends at the True Brew coffeehouse downtown, and one of the audience members turned out to be UNO music faculty member Charles Blancq. During a discussion between sets, Blancq convinced the eager young drummer to join the burgeoning jazz studies program at the university and even helped Ventittilli get a scholarship.

"My mother was finally able to sleep nights when she found out I was actually going to go to school," Ventittilli says.

He soon found himself in a demanding program taught by some of the city's premier musicians. Since its inception in 1989, the Jazz Studies program at UNO has grown from a smattering of aspiring students to a strong ensemble of 65 currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate studies. They come from as far away as Denmark, China, Canada, Jamaica and Japan to study America's most original art form in the place where it originated.

That may sound like a fun way to go to school, but these students must complete a highly disciplined and rigorous course of studies. Morning classes are devoted to music theory and are taught by such master musicians as Harold Batiste, who also teaches two semesters of arranging.

"Mr. Batiste was a great teacher," Ventittilli says. "He truly inspired me, but he doesn't put all his knowledge out on a plate and say help yourself. You have to be hungry and ask questions."

'I find my gigs by going out and pounding the pavement,' says Ventittilli (shown here outside House of Blues). 'We are some truly hungry dudes, and we love to play.'
In the afternoon, students strike up their combos, which gives them a chance to play together and trade licks with the teachers in a variety of styles. The groups -- traditional jazzers, big bands, percussion ensembles and more -- are led by such luminaries as Alvin "Red" Tyler, Don Vappie and Ed Petersen. During these sessions, there's plenty of informal critiquing between students.

"There's some serious shit-talking, and none of it is sugarcoated," Ventittilli says. "But that's all part of being a musician."

Every Wednesday, one of those student combos appears at the Sandbar, the campus watering hole, to demonstrate its progress. And two or three times a year, legendary Jazz Studies director Ellis Marsalis leads a big band comprising up to 20 students. During those shows, which benefit a scholarship fund, locals get a chance to see some of the true up-and-comers on the local jazz scene.

Jazz students also get some one-on-one instruction during private classes that focus on technique and feature more personal interaction between professor and student.

On top of all that, jazz students also must complete the same series of courses required for graduation. Arranging those around a full schedule of music classes is an art form in itself.

And then there are the students who also need to make a living while going through school. A typical Thursday has Ventittilli up at 9 a.m. and headed to House of Blues to impart some of his knowledge to kids in the "Blues in Schools" program run by the House of Blues Foundation.

After a lunch on the run, he's off to class from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. His combos then play until about 4:30 p.m., and then he's in his "normal" classes until 6 p.m. His gig at the Crescent City Brewhouse will run from 6:30 p.m. until 9 p.m., and a late-night set at Donna's may last from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m.

"I find my gigs by going out and pounding the pavement," Ventittilli says. "The newer students coming into the program seem less serious than us older cats. We are some truly hungry dudes, and we love to play."

He'll need to keep that hunger to succeed, because it won't get any easier once he graduates. While he often plays with fellow students, most of Ventittilli's partners are everyday musicians. And they're trying to make a living in a town where the competition is fierce and -- with the success of the Jazz Studies program -- getting fiercer all the time. .

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