The UNCSA Jazz Ensemble has received widespread acclaim performing across the state and around the Southeast at jazz festivals, concert halls, public schools and other colleges each year. The band includes talented student musicians from the graduate, undergraduate, and high school divisions of the School of Music, who are natives of North Carolina, other states around the nation, and other countries around the world. The group's repertoire includes an extensive variety of big band jazz ranging from the traditional greats like Count Basie and Duke Ellington to Latin pieces and music in more contemporary styles.
The band won first place in the college jazz band division at the Count Basie Orchestra Festival in Hampton, Va. Other performances include the Umbria Jazz Festival in Raleigh, N.C.; Hilton Head Jazz Society; Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.; ArtSchool in Carrboro, N.C.; the Piedmont Triad Jazz Festival; and jazz festivals at UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Charlotte. The band also recorded an album, "The North Carolina School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble Plays Swing."
Since the swing revival of the 1990s the UNCSA Jazz Ensemble has been active as a "swing dance band" and has enjoyed enthusiastic receptions at numerous regional swing dance events. The ensemble has also performed "classical" jazz compositions including Leonard Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs," George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (original dance band orchestration), Morton Gould’s “Derivations,” and Bill Smith’s “Concerto for Clarinet and Jazz Combo”, all featuring UNCSA artist-faculty as guest soloists.
Student jazz combos have won awards in Downbeat magazine's annual student "DB" competition, have performed on summer tours of Italy, Germany and France as part of UNCSA's International Music Program, and have appeared at the Morro Bay Jazz Festival in California. For over ten years an all-star alumni jazz band and the UNCSA Jazz Ensemble performed at Manteo, N.C., (the Outer Banks) as part of UNCSA's Summer Performance Festival. These groups have all been enthusiastically received both in this country and in Europe.
Alumni of the UNCSA jazz program have gone on to win prestigious positions at the Thelonious Monk Institute in Los Angeles and the Dave Brubeck Institute in northern California where they have performed with jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Dave Brubeck, Christian McBride, and Wayne Shorter, among others. Other Alumni have placed in the finals in the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition and the ASCAP jazz composition competition. Alumni have performed and recorded with members of the Marsalis family and the Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, and Woody Herman orchestras. Other alumni have performed and recorded with prominent jazz artists, including Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, and Charlie Hunter.
Guest jazz artists who have performed and given clinics at UNCSA, and appeared with the UNCSA Jazz Ensemble include: Ray Anderson, Ralph Bowen, Jens Lindemann Phil Markowitz, Bob Sheppard, Bruce Forman, Lew Tabackin, Chris Potter, Gary Smulyan, Bob Mintzer, Eddie Daniels, Mark Levine, Carl Fontana, Marvin Stamm, Don Menza, Gary Burton, Frank Foster, Jim Snidero, Lennie Picket, Brubeck-Laverne Trio, Free Flight, Steve Houghton and Tom Warrington, Woody Herman Band, Hal Galper Trio, Chris Vadala, Ed Shaughnessy Quintet, David Friesen, Gene Bertoncini & Michael Moore, and Herbie Mann.
Another integral component of the jazz program at UNCSA is a year-long Jazz Improvisation Lab offering instruction in jazz theory and various approaches and concepts of improvised jazz. Also offered is a year-long course in Jazz Arranging, including techniques ranging from small to large jazz ensemble.