The tables in front of the stage filled as musicians unpacked their instruments at Gaslight Social on a recent Sunday evening.
Mario Feraud directed a group of about 18 Natrona County High School Big Band members as they warmed up the crowd with a jazz classic and a funk standard before the main act took the stage. Several students took seats while Feraud picked up his saxophone and prepared to perform with his six-person band comprised of some fellow NC band alumni.
The house band for the music series project he calls Jazz Verbs performed a set of jazz and blended genres, including a hip-hop infused jazz version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” arranged by Feraud.
At one point in the show, a pair danced near the stage, energizing the band members who bobbed and swayed more intensely to the beat.
Feraud wants more evenings like that one in Casper — filled with live music and festivity. He organized a series of weekly gigs at Gaslight Social to help bring jazz out of its association with academia and formal seating and into local gathering spots. The Jazz Verbs series continues Sundays at Gaslight Social through its Dec. 17 finale.
“Basically, I’m just trying to take the stigma off the word jazz a little bit and not see it so much as a genre, but as a verb that acts on top of music,” Feraud said.
Sparking jazz excitement
Feraud played in Natrona County High School’s jazz band and continued his education at the University of Denver. While studying abroad in Scotland two years ago, he discovered a different environment for the jazz, which often drew dozens of enthusiasts to pack small pubs.
“It showed me that this music still does have a lot of life to it, you just have to sell it in a little bit of a different way,” Feraud said.
Jazz has moved more into academia in recent decades, which didn’t harm it at all, Feraud said. But it changed how people perceive jazz. Like classical music, it’s become associated with special occasions and the more formal atmosphere of concert halls. But before that, it was common in larger cities to be able to go listen to live jazz any night of the week, he said.
“It always was just something that was built in kind of underground bars and things like that,” Feraud said. “And it always had such a live vibe to it.”
He’s involving high school students in the Jazz Verbs series, so they’ll more excited and eager to perform the music they enjoy while gaining different kinds of performing experiences, he said. Feraud volunteers in the classroom to help them prepare as well as offer his perspective as a performing musician. He wants to students know pursuing music is possible if they set their minds to it, he said.
Any donations during the events go the Natrona County High School music program to help with expenses including instrument and equipment maintenance. It also shows students an example of how hard work can pay off, NCHS band director Shawn Weis said.
Encouraging the next generation of musicians is a way for Feraud to give back for the experiences that shaped him as a musician. It also helps his former teacher, Weis.
“There aren’t many concert bands in the world today,” Weis said in an email, “but the type of playing they are learning as a part of this project will give them a skill set that can keep them performing for the rest of their lives.”
He’s enjoying seeing Feraud and his other former students in the band continue with skills they built in high school, and showing the community that high school students can achieve great things.
“I’m really happy that we can help Mario in his journey as a professional musician,” Weis added. “I’m also happy that he is giving back in helping these students follow in his footsteps. I always tell my students that they couldn’t have come as far as they have on their instrument without help along the way. They need to remember be that same help to others. Mario exemplifies that statement.”
Dillan Spence plays guitar in the NC Big Band and appreciates the chances to perform more than occasional school concerts, he said.
“It’s kind of a drag when you’re really dedicated and you practice all the time, but you don’t really get to share it with other people,” Spence said. “And with Mario setting this up, it’s just great to be able to share it and actually play in front of other people, and to actually get to do something with all that work that you’ve put into it.”
Feraud’s work to reinvigorate jazz enthusiasm extends to the music the Jazz Verbs house band performs. If he wants to inspire the audience, he has to start with the band.
When musicians perform the same charts or covers they’ve seen, heard and are always performed a certain way, there’s no room for expression, he said. If the musicians don’t feel involved with the music, the audience doesn’t either, he added.
The group consists of Feraud, guitarist Jay Reed, singer Samantha Allen, drummer Ryan Bell along with past NC band members Kasey Stewart on trumpet, trombonist Dave Mayer and bass guitarist Aaron Hanson. Their performances include arrangements Feraud creates of songs that people recognize, like hits by Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, while keeping his jazz roots. For him, jazz is an exciting event, and he wants to pass on that feeling to audiences.
“The improvisation and all that extra stuff that is behind it that really makes jazz what it is,” he said.
Rearranging music for a six-piece group is time consuming work, he said. But it’s worth it.
“That’s one thing I’m trying to push,” he said. “Anytime that the musicians are up on stage, they’re loving it and vibing with everybody.”