La Grande, Ore. – (Release from Eastern Oregon University) If you missed the Depot St. Syncopators on Fat Tuesday, you not only missed a show influenced by Louisiana rhythms, but you will have to wait another 360 days to see them again.
That is because the band, made up largely of Eastern Oregon University faculty and alumni, exists mainly for Mardi Gras.
The band, which has been performing since 2010, gets together for other occasions in several other smaller configurations. However, on Feb. 21 the group performed live at hq, a music venue in downtown La Grande.
Luke McKern, a senior instructor and music technique instructor at EOU, spent a year in post-Katrina New Orleans, and began sharing the rich musical culture of New Orleans jazz with La Grande.
The band, led by McKern, includes Eastern Oregon University connections, Matt Cooper, on piano, a retired music professor, Roger Barnes on bass, Mark Emerson on drums, Holly Sorensen on vocals and Renee Wells also on vocals, both EOU graduates. Greg Johnson on saxophone, and Scott McConnell on percussion, are instructors at EOU. Jeff Sizer on trombone taught music in Baker City for many years and now teaches in Seattle.
“La Grande is a great place to be, in that through EOU there are people in town that can bring this level of musicianship and variety to the local stage,” McConnell said. “I hope it was as fun for the audience as it was for all of us.”
Johnson, an improvising saxophonist, said performing as part of an ensemble is essential.
“It is a skill that can be developed alone, it is not one that can be fully exercised without the interaction that comes from performing in an ensemble,” Johnson said.
HQ co-owner Christopher Jennings touts the unique connection between the University.
“La Grande is underrepresented in population and physically distant from places with large numbers of craftspeople who have refined their skill. So, as far as EOU goes, from the faculty to the students, those that have that talent are valuable.” Jennings said. The coordination between community and those folk is powerful, and we see that at hq when we have EOU Faculty and Students come to play.”
Johnson lamented about the loss of performing spaces during the pandemic and how difficult it was for him personally.
“The last few years have been tough on everyone and musicians were no exception,” Johnson said. “It has been wonderful to get back out and play with and for real people. I can’t imagine ever taking those things for granted again.”
Although live music is back, it is not yet to the level it was pre-pandemic, Johnson noted.
“We are blessed at EOU to have current and former students and faculty active in the local music community and it is here that I have found a musical home more than any other place I have lived and played, so I count myself very fortunate,” Johnson said.
“Live music has been directly correlated with the community – especially in our region,” Jennings said. “Music is an art form that you can build a community around and immerse your community in.”