Home Arts & Entertainment Unveiling Cuesta’s jazz music scene

Unveiling Cuesta’s jazz music scene

Cuesta Jazz Ensemble rehearsal. Photo by Joey Batista

The Jazz Studies program at Cuesta College provides an educational setting for musically inclined students on campus. 

On March 8-9, Cuesta hosted their annual Central Coast Jazz Festival, with performances across the board from Cuesta jazz bands.

The Cuesta jazz program consists of eight small-band combos, and an ensemble of around 20 students. Both the combos and ensemble occasionally compete in festivals and play various paid gigs in and around San Luis Obispo County. 

Many combos at Cuesta are their own stand-alone jazz bands, as well as being associated with the school. The combos are broken up by skill level and style. For example, certain combos are dedicated to Early French Jazz or Funk Jazz, just to name a few. 

The Jazz Ensemble, on the other hand, is Cuesta’s only big band. A big band is a jazz orchestra consisting of 10 or more musicians and a trumpet, trombone, saxophone and rhythm section. The rhythm section includes instruments like piano, bass, drums and guitar, and are usually only played by one musician. 

Ron McCarley, director of Cuesta’s Jazz Studies program, started the combo program when he first arrived at Cuesta 20 years ago. McCarley has advanced countless jazz combos into successful small-jazz bands. None more notable though than Sperdak, which was given the title Best Community College Small Jazz Combo in the Nation by DownBeat in 2015, and IATA which was awarded the same title in 2018.

McCarley and his ensembles have also had their time in the limelight, competing in prominent jazz festivals such as the Reno Jazz Festival and Santa Cruz Jazz Festival. Nowadays though, McCarley’s vision with the ensemble has shifted.

“I haven’t been focused so much on that [competing] lately,” McCarley said. “I try to focus more on community involvement and teaching the music.”

With a routine 3-hour rehearsal on Monday nights, the Cuesta Jazz Ensemble only meets up once a week for practice. Although, McCarley’s experience and the frequent appearances of guest artists such as world-renowned jazz drummer, Dave Toll, who made an appearance this weekend at the Central Coast Jazz Festival, are just a couple of reasons why Cuesta Jazz maintains a high reputation. 

The work being done behind closed doors by jazz students at Cuesta, especially the ensemble, hasn’t gone unnoticed. The program has grown a reputation as being one of the most well-rounded community college jazz programs in the state. 

Spencer Hafley, a freshman at Cuesta and a saxophone player for the ensemble, is greatly appreciative for the opportunity to play for this band. 

“Since high school, I’ve wanted to be in this group,” Hafley said. “And now that I’m here, I’m learning a lot more and it’s exciting.”

Although the ensemble is convivial for those involved, not everyone meets the requirements to be a part of the group. McCarley said any student can audition for a position, but no one is guaranteed a spot. This is not how it works if a student wants to play in a combo though. In fact, students are more than welcome to join the combo program no matter what instrument, style, or skill level they are at. 

“Seriously do it,” Hafley said. “There will never be a time where they turn you away from being in a combo. If you want to make music, come do it, there is no harm in trying.”

Any Cuesta student is allowed to join either program. It is as easy as enrolling in a class through your myCuesta Portal. The combo program is listed under “MUS 245” and the ensemble under “MUS 231.”

For anyone interested in supporting Cuesta Jazz, come out to Linneas Cafe, in downtown San Luis Obispo, on the first and third Friday of each month. Other common places for Cuesta’s combos to perform include Club Car Bar in Templeton, Calif., and BarrelHouse Brewing in downtown San Luis Obispo. For any other live events, check out Cuesta’s online ticketing office for more information.



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