The sounds of jazz intrigued Kait Dunton. Then they won her heart.
Photo by John Mason.
It’s amazing what one e-mail can do. If Kait Dunton hadn’t shot off a note to U.Va. music professor John D’earth during her first week of college, there’s a chance she wouldn’t be where she is today: studying in the graduate jazz studies program at the top-ranked University of North Texas College of Music.
There’s probably only a slight chance she wouldn’t be there, though, because Dunton (Spanish ’05) doesn’t seem like the type of person who’d let a lost or unreturned e-mail get in the way of pursuing a new interest.
When she first wrote D’earth in the fall of 2001, all she was trying to do was find out a little bit more about jazz opportunities at the University.
The classically trained pianist was intrigued by the sounds of jazz. Sure, she had some jazz records that she liked, or the odd piece of jazz sheet music she’d be given over the years, but Dunton had never learned any theory or how to actually create jazz music.
“I was enjoying jazz from a classical perspective,” she says, meaning that she was either listening to the music or sight reading it for the piano. “The fundamental concept of jazz is that it is improvised.”
Dunton uses a comparison with language to help the musically ignorant understand how jazz musicians create sound.“Speaking is also improvised,” she says. “You know the important structures for forming sentences, but you sort of make it up as you go along.”
Each member of a jazz group needs to know the song and specific chords to play. Instead of playing the original melody each time, however, the jazz musician improvises over the chord changes and creates a new melody, she says.
“When you’re relying on four people to support you in a performance, it can be nerve-wracking,” says Dunton.“What I’ve learned from working with people in music has helped me deal with people in life.”
In Dunton’s enthusiastic and articulate explanations, you can already hear the voice of a budding teacher. When asked the dreaded question of what she wants to do with her life after graduate school, she mentions both teaching and performing.
“It’s not like law or business school when you know you’re going to get a job when you get out,” she says with a laugh.
Dunton has come a long way from those first weeks at Virginia, when she enrolled in D’earth’s jazz improvisation workshop and played her classical songs in the sound-proof piano rooms in the basement of Old Cabell Hall. By the time she graduated, she’d been a part of the Jazz Ensemble and played local Charlottesville gigs with two groups, The Sharp Five and the Kait Dunton Trio.
Her program at the University of North Texas — which has graduated jazz greats such as “Blue” Lou Marini, tenor saxophonist with Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Lyle Mays, pianist with the Pat Metheny Group — boasts 10 jazz bands and plenty of opportunities for forming groups to play the local bar scene, Dunton says.
When she’s not practicing or performing, she still tinkers around with her classical roots and has begun studying voice. “I haven’t yet been brave enough to perform anywhere,” she says of her singing. But chances are audiences won’t have to wait too long.