Pictured Above: East End Jazz at the Peconic Community School’s Maker Fair in Cutchogue this spring.

Do you scat sing when no one is listening, filling the air with wordless melody lines in the car or in the shower or deep in the woods where no one can hear you?

If you’ve ever even thought of doing so, then jazz is in you.

The founders of East End Jazz, a new women-led non-profit looking to bring excitement to the experience of jazz music on the East End, are bringing ordinary people into this musical conversation with their first local interactive performance workshop at the Southampton Cultural Center June 1.

The concert, “Celebrating Duke Ellington’s 125th Birthday,” kicks off with interactive exercises led by the founders of East End Jazz — vocalist Olivia Foschi and bassist Iris Ornig, followed by a concert of Duke Ellington’s music performed by a quartet including pianist Ben Rosenblum and drummer Rodrigo Recabarren.

“Everyone has jazz in them. It’s a feeling,” said Ms. Ornig, who serves as the new organization’s director, in an early May interview with The Beacon.

Iris Ornig (l) and Olivia Foschi (r) are looking to inspire the East End to love jazz.

“Jazz is the one place that encompasses so many cultures — African, South and Latin American, European,” added Ms. Foschi. “It’s a living, breathing thing. You never know which direction it’s going to take.”

“It’s a different dialect, but the same language,” said Ms. Ornig of jazz from around the world.

Both of the East End Jazz founders have worked extensively in New York City and now live here, where they’re looking to build a community of jazz listeners from the ground up, through educational programming, house concerts, team-building events and partnerships with venues that have an interest in hosting jazz artists.

Ms. Ornig was working as the artistic director of The Kitano Hotel, which had a Tuesday evening series featuring emerging jazz artists, when Ms. Foschi performed there, and they found shared the experience of being serious jazz musicians in a community whose male performers are far more well-known.

“It’s a small world out there, especially for women,” said Ms. Foschi. “You often hear ‘you’re just a singer,’ but that’s a degrading title. Vocalists are musicians who also have to express their emotions, and be vulnerable.”

Ms. Foschi said she often takes inspiration from vocalist Sarah Vaughan, who when she became famous was often offered hotel suites on tour, but “would always lodge up with her band members. That encapsulates jazz. We’re together as a family. There’s no hierarchy within our setting.”

“We want to rally the community,” said Ms. Ornig of East End Jazz, which has been in the works since last September and became incorporated as a 501(c)3 organization in February of this year. “This is about getting the community together and establishing jazz again.”

Both women were raised in Europe — Ms. Foschi in Italy and Ms. Ornig in Germany, where they often found the classical and traditional music surrounding them stifling.

Ms. Ornig was 13 years old, living in a small town in Germany, when she first heard Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

“I said wow, what was that?” she said. She then begged her mother for a bass guitar until she gave in and found her daughter a Fender P bass. She joined the jazz band at school and eventually also took up the upright base.

Ms. Foschi remembered her mother had a box set called “Decades of Jazz,” put out by Playboy back when people did read the magazine for the articles.

“I heard Sarah Vaughan singing ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ and I said ‘I want to do that,’” she said. “My mother said ‘ok honey.’”

“There was freedom in jazz,” said Ms. Foschi, who quickly became enamored of the music of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Cannonball Adderley, and managed to sneak her listening habit into school via headphones, until one day, in chemistry class working on an experiment involving a Bunsen burner, her teacher caught her.

“The teacher said — I don’t know what you’re listening to. It sounds complicated. But you need to focus” on your chemistry project, remembers Ms. Foschi.

“Germany cherishes classical composers,” said Ms. Ornig, who felt that heavy weight of the traditions in which she was raised, which were broken to some degree by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, but were still far from jazz.

“The freedom of jazz is alluring,” she said. She remembered being bowled over as a young listener when she learned that Duke Ellington couldn’t go to a restaurant of his choice in the segregated south in the United States.

“I read Duke Ellington’s biography, and he talked about jazz as an outlet to feel free, with music,” she said.

Both organizers hope to make that sense of freedom palpable for East End listeners.

They also hope to work with community centers and school groups on trips to places that are central to the history of jazz, including the National Jazz Museum in New York City.

East End Jazz had its first interactive concert earlier this spring at the Ridgewood Library in Queens, during which they encouraged the audience to explore a full range of scat singing.

“Everyone was participating, and a young woman, maybe 14 to 16 years old, came up to us bubbling — she said it was so much fun,” said Ms. Foschi. “Our goal was met.:

Everyone has a voice, and vocal improvisation is a great place to start getting people who may not play an instrument involved in making music, said Ms. Foschi. 

“Hand them a mic!” she said. “Percussion can be difficult. Once you give a drum to anyone, they can’t stop banging on it. Anyone! It gets very chaotic. You can’t ask audience members who’ve never played an instrument to play the piano. But the one common ground we all have is singing.”

Ms. Ornig said natural percussive movements like stomping, clapping hands, snapping and slapping your hips can also be a musical expression that comes naturally to people.

Ms. Foschi, the mother of twin elementary-aged sons, said she believes the emotional connection made when we use our voices creates a safe space that can’t be found in social media or connections through the personas we create to connect through screens.

When she starts a conversation about jazz, Ms. Foschi said she usually finds people are of one of three minds about the music — they either think it belongs in elevators, or they believe it is too crazy, or they’re avid listeners. 

If they ask her where they should start listening, she usually asks people what kind of experience they’d like to have. If they’re looking for more soothing music, she recommends they start with Chet Baker, or if they’re looking for something crazy she suggests Ornette Coleman. For people who need a bridge to popular music, she suggests vocalist Lizz Wright.

“Ella Fitzgerald is just so easy to love,” she added.

Ms. Ornig is a huge fan of the big band era, and of Frank Sinatra.

For the June 1 concert, they’re planning to play with the big band tunes that the Duke Ellington Orchestra made famous, performing them as bossa nova or blues or straight-ahead ballads, playing with different tempos and rhythmic approaches than the originals.

“We want to give people as much of a window as possible, keeping it varied and fresh and giving a big portrait,” said Ms. Foschi.

“I believe people will love jazz again,” said Ms. Ornig.

“East End Jazz: Celebrating Duke Ellington” will be held on Saturday, June 1 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for those under 20 years old, and are available at scc-arts.org/event/duke-ellingtons-125/ 

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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