Cavaliers join UA Jazz Ensemble for concert

Francie Johnson

Maybe it’s the bright lights, maybe it’s the feeling of all those eyes on you or maybe it’s something else entirely, but many performers will say there’s no feeling quite like being on stage. For Merle Lemley, pianist and keyboardist for the Alabama Cavaliers, one moment stands out above the rest.

“When the director walks to the podium and the band begins to play, the audience begins to applaud as they realize that we are playing ‘Stars Fell on Alabama,’” she said. “People who have attended year after year have told me that it’s their favorite moment.”

The Alabama Cavaliers Jazz Reunion Concert, which will take place Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the Moody Music Building concert hall, has been an annual tradition for the Alabama Cavalier Alumni Association ever since 1975. Every year, the Cavaliers and the University of Alabama Jazz Ensemble come together in celebration and support of jazz music and the University’s Jazz Program.

The Alabama Cavaliers formed in 1929 under the name “The Capstone Orchestra.” After spending the summer of 1933 performing at the Cavalier Hotel Beach Club at Virginia Beach, the group adopted the hotel’s name and continued performing throughout the Southeast.

Now, in addition to performing annually at the reunion concert, the group acts as a fundraising organization for the University of Alabama Jazz Program.

“Being a Cavalier is just fun,” Lemley said. “Of course, the favorite part of the fun is playing with them. They are excellent musicians. We have school teachers, doctors, lawyers and many other occupations, but we come together to play music.”

In 1969, Steve Sample, a former Cavalier, founded the University of Alabama Jazz Ensemble. Unlike the Cavaliers, the Jazz Ensemble eventually became interwoven in the school’s curriculum. After Sample retired as director in 1992, he was succeeded by Tom Wolfe and then by current director Chris Kozak.

Lemley attended The University of Alabama from 1975 to 1976 when she received her Master’s Degree in Music Education. She found herself back in the classroom 15 years later after enrolling in the University’s music therapy program. Just a few months into her music therapy classes, Lemley stumbled upon the Jazz Ensemble.

“One day, I stopped by the jazz room and chatted with the director,” Lemley said. “He needed a pianist, so I became a member of the Jazz Ensemble. Soon after that, I realized that was what I wanted to do.”

Despite a rich background in music, she said her quiet personality sometimes makes it challenging for her to convey the emotion in jazz music.

“No music is more emotional than jazz,” she said. “Jazz is a conversation, always interesting and emotionally charged. Creating these moments and sounds along with other people is always exciting. It’s just fun, but we need to practice and strive for excellence for it to be real.”

“The Alabama Cavaliers Jazz Reunion concert will benefit both the musicians and the Tuscaloosa community as a whole,” said Courtney Fair, marketing support assistant of the University of Alabama School of Music.

“It will be great for [the Jazz Ensemble] to play with the Cavaliers,” she said. “Some of the Cavaliers are professional musicians, and I think it would be great for the aspiring instrumentalists to learn from them. It would [also] give Tuscaloosa a great outlet for jazz music because you never really hear jazz music played around Tuscaloosa.”

The Alabama Cavaliers Jazz Reunion Concert will take place Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in the Moody Music Building concert hall. Admission is free.

(See also “Alabama Jazz Ensemble to perform with quartet“)