By: Brooke Kohl  | 

YU Jazz Ensemble Transforms Shenk Room 222 Into Jazz Club

Just a few miles from Harlem, where musicians such as Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong performed and revolutionized jazz during the Harlem Renaissance, the YU Jazz Ensemble performed this uniquely American art form with spectacular energy and skill. At 8:30 p.m. on April 15, the Ensemble transformed Room 222 of Schottenstein Center, in Washington Heights, the building that hosts Shenk Shul, into a lively jazz club.

How, exactly, can a room be transformed into a jazz club? To the YU Jazz Ensemble, the answer is simple: invite people to the room at a specified time and play jazz at that time. While Room 222 still looked like the run-down practice room that it is, the music that resounded within it created the atmosphere of a dim, fancy jazz club. 

Taught by Professor Jon Schapiro of the YU music department, the YU Jazz Ensemble is an official course offered at YU. The group meets once a week with Professor Schapiro in order to practice together. The performance featured Danny Kutin (YC ‘25) on the drums, Tuvya Macklin (YC ‘25) on electric bass, Rafi Saperstein (YC ‘25) on guitar, Schneur Schusterman (YC ‘26) on saxophone and Yonatan Beer (YC ‘25) on piano. Three songs also welcomed in singers Isaac Epner (SSSB ‘25) and Nachshoni Rothenberg (YC ‘26). 

The group has been practicing their repertoire for Jazz Night for a long time and they are happy with how it turned out, Macklin told The Commentator. “The event exceeded my expectations, it was so much fun,” Macklin said. “One of the greatest things for me was being able to share it with my friends and family. Preparing the stuff for it — it’s been the entire year and also last year — and now we got to show it to them, to show them all that we worked on. It was awesome to see some people … dancing in the middle of the songs, moving in their seats.” The people who were at the performance were clearly just as excited to be there as Macklin and the rest of the band were to have them there. 

The performance began with Professor Schapiro introducing the performers, followed by a brief definition of jazz from Schusterman. Jazz is a constantly-evolving genre of music developed by African Americans in New Orleans in the 20th century. Partially inspired by blues and ragtime music, jazz combines European harmony with African rhythm and is defined by its syncopated rhythm and improvisation.

One doesn’t normally attend performances expecting to hear applause in the middle of songs, but such was the case at the YU Jazz Night. Each song began with a recognizable melody while the middle part of each song was a solo section, where different instrumentalists would improvise, coming up with intricate pieces of music on the fly. The soloists did not play random notes; rather, bits of melody were incorporated into the solos, and hearing what the performers were able to spiral a fragment of the melody into was captivating. 

At a certain point in the performance, Professor Schapiro commented that for an unknown reason, students who come to YU like to play in five-fourths time signature. A five-fourths time signature is not the easiest to play, but as they played their rendition of “Take Five,” it became clear why these musicians wanted to play in this time signature. They all perfectly kept with the time, and the audience watched, captivated, as the bassist and the saxophonist tapped their feet in time to a rhythm that does not feel natural. 

Throughout the performance, audience members marveled at the musicians: Saperstein’s flawless fingerpicking on his guitar; the strong, low reverberations of Macklin’s magnificent bass lines; Schusterman’s seemingly endless lung capacity and amazing sound quality; Beer’s fingers flitting magically over his keys; Epner’s soaring notes in his heartfelt rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”; Rothenberg’s rumbling bass notes and beautiful melodies; and Kutin’s perfect timekeeping and heart-stopping rhythms going back-and-forth with the rest of the band during his solos, as well as, of course, his costume change. Known to pull off costume changes at the Music Club’s Open Mic Night and Battle of the Bands, Kutin did so at Jazz Night as well, despite the fact that only one band performed. During Schusterman and Saperstein’s duet of “Autumn in New York,” Kutin left the room wearing a sparkly silver button-down shirt, only to return in a Hawaiian shirt featuring yellow flowers, blue waves, sailboats, and pink palm trees.

Fitting perfectly with the upcoming holiday of Pesach, the official performance ended with a breathtaking rendition of “Go Down Moses.” As Professor Schapiro explained, the song was inspired by the slavery of the Israelites and was sung by enslaved Black people in America. Parts of the song, featuring vocals by Rothenberg, were played almost as a dialogue between the vocals and the saxophone, and I could hear the words being “sung” by the saxophone as well as by Rothenberg. Rothenberg’s bass notes in this song were incredible and chilling, and a perfect end to the night. 

Except … it wasn’t the end. 

Professor Schapiro dismissed us, but the band said they were going to keep playing even though we were free to leave. Almost everyone stayed in their seats as the Ensemble played one encore song, “Freddie Freeloader,” before really being told to go home. 

As we slowly exited the Shenk Shul jazz club event, the Ensemble’s music no longer drowned out the distracting noise from outside, but the jazz kept center stage in our minds. 


Photo caption: Tuvya Macklin (left) and Rafi Saperstein (right) performing at the YU Jazz Night Event

Photo credit: Nachshoni Rothenberg