Published: September 26, 2017

Saxophonist, composer, and arranger Hitomi Oba will direct the UCLA Contemporary Jazz Ensemble in 2017-18, bringing a fresh perspective to jazz students. Oba is also teaching music theory in the Department of Music, incorporating Western classical, jazz, American popular music, and various world musical genres.

Oba, a UCLA alumna (M.A. Music Composition; B.A. Ethnomusicology/Jazz Studies) was a member of the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble as a student in the early 2000s. Her professional activities since then have put her in the company of some of the best young jazz performers and composers in the country. The first woman to lead a large ensemble at UCLA, Oba is in good company: female musicians have played important roles as performers, composers, and bandleaders from the early days of jazz to the present.

Donna Armstrong recently interviewed Oba about her approach to music.

Interview with Hitomi Oba

ARMSTRONG: Tell us about your plans for the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble this year.

OBA: The Contemporary Jazz Ensemble’s focus is to study and perform large ensemble repertoire composed by living and active jazz artists.  There is such a wide range of musical aesthetics and non-traditional approaches to large ensemble composition, improvisation, and performance today; it will be an exciting and enriching experience for all of us to dig in! 

ARMSTRONG: You received your B.A. degree from UCLA in ethnomusicology with a jazz studies concentration. How does that experience relate to your current plans for the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble?

OBA: I was so fortunate to be exposed to a wide array of musical approaches, philosophies, and aesthetics in the ethnomusicology courses I took and world music performance ensembles I participated in.  As a jazz musician, it expanded my musical perspective immensely. 

While at UCLA, I was a student leader of the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, then under the supervision and guidance of Kenny Burrell.  We were always focused on bringing in material that was exciting to us - whether that be our original compositions and arrangements or works by established, contemporary jazz artists whose music we wanted to study and perform.

For this new version of the ensemble, I want to bring that same passion for cutting edge material, while thoughtfully curating a repertoire that covers a wide range of diverse perspectives and approaches.

ARMSTRONG: Which of the world music ensembles did you participate in while an undergraduate? How did those student experiences affect you as a professional composer/director/performer?

OBA: During my undergraduate years studying jazz music in the ethnomusicology department, as well as my graduate student years studying composition in the music department, I participated in Nyoman Wenten’s Balinese gamelan ensemble, Tzvetanka Varimezova’s Bulgarian choir, James Roberson’s African American Ensemble (gospel choir), and Francisco Aguabella’s Afro-Cuban Ensemble.   I actually wanted to take even more, but I needed to prioritize some of the jazz ensembles since it was my primary focus.

Those ensembles were eye-opening and mind-widening.  For each of them, it took me a while to adjust to the different methods of learning, and even listening to the music.  This really expanded my perspectives on music beyond my comfort zone - which was jazz, American popular music, Western classical, and Western-influenced music.

The experiences and flexibility I gained from participating in those ensembles have proven invaluable in all of my work, and particularly my work in cross-genre ensembles, including the Jon Jangtet, the Aditya Prakash Ensemble, and taiko master Kenny Endo’s ensemble.  Pianist, composer, and social activist Jon Jang’s music draws upon African-American music as well as traditional Chinese and Japanese music; Carnatic vocalist Aditya Prakash’s ensemble brings together modern jazz and Carnatic musicians; Taiko Master Kenny Endo performs his Japanese-influenced compositions with a hybrid ensemble of both Japanese and Western instruments.  Playing in and writing for these ensembles has been a truly rewarding exploratory and creative process - and learning how to communicate musical ideas with different types of musicians has helped me grow as a human being.

ARMSTRONG: You received your M.A. degree from UCLA in music composition. How does that experience relate to your plans for the students in the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble?

OBA: As a practitioner and disciple of jazz, it has been essential for me to learn about and understand jazz as an African-American art form in its musical manifestations, culture, and historical legacy.  Western classical music has always been influential in the creation and growth of jazz and its musicians; in return, the past century has seen it greatly influenced by jazz in a rich exchange of musical language that continues today.

Next April, the American Composers Orchestra will perform a piece of mine (alongside other composers straddling the jazz and classical worlds).  My in-depth studies of Western classical music in graduate school allowed me not only to further my study of jazz music from this perspective, but also to expand my artistic palette.  In particular, it has enabled me to communicate and work with virtuosic musicians of the “classical” discipline in the USA and abroad.

ARMSTRONG: You are the first female director of a large jazz ensemble at UCLA. What does that mean to you, to be a female bandleader? Are there female bandleaders whose work you admire?

OBA: There are countless incredible female bandleaders and composers of many generations - and many whose work I plan on including in the ensemble’s repertoire.  In particular, this year we will explore music by Toshiko Akiyoshi, Myra Melford, and Maria Schneider. 

This fall, I am also looking forward to guest artist Nicole Mitchell sharing her music and experiences.  I hope and believe that by being more visible and acknowledged for their artistry, female bandleaders will become part of the perceived norm.

ARMSTRONG: You lead a number of small ensembles in the U.S. and abroad. Most notably, you co-founded the composer/performer new music collective L.A. Signal Lab. Tell us about that group.

OBA: L.A. Signal Lab is a composer/performer collective I co-founded with Nick DePinna (UCLA alumnus), Dan Marschak (UCLA alumnus and former faculty), and Noah Meites (UCLA faculty).  All four of us have backgrounds in jazz music and also studied Western classical composition.  We compose music to perform ourselves alongside satellite members, with a particular interest in and aim towards integrating notated and improvised music.  We create a new program of music every year and present it a number of times throughout Northern and Southern California before releasing a studio album. 

ARMSTRONG: You are a member of Kenny Burrell’s Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited. What is it like to be a part of that group?

OBA: Kenny is a legend, a master musician, a consummate professional, and a wonderful human being.  Being a member of his orchestra has not only been a huge honor and truly enriching, but also a lot of fun.  Kenny has assembled incredible musicians from various generations of jazz in this ensemble, and I am always learning from these friends and colleagues of mine - often lessons that can only be learned firsthand from “primary sources.”

ARMSTRONG: You are from Berkeley, California, and began your musical training there. Tell us how your early musical experiences contributed to the musician that you are today.
OBA: Berkeley and the greater San Francisco Bay area are such culturally rich environments.  I feel truly fortunate to have been nurtured by a supportive community and to have had access to many exceptional music education programs.  I particularly appreciate that most of them, such as the Young Musicians Program, Oaktown Jazz Workshops, American Composers Forum Composers in the Schools, and the Berkeley High School Jazz program, were structured so that financial inaccessibility was not a barrier for students wanting to participate.  For me, and others like me, this not only made participation possible, but also created diverse, enthusiastic groups of people supporting one another in healthy, social musical environments, under the guidance of dedicated, talented educators.

ARMSTRONG: Thank you, Hitomi.

OBA: Thank you, Donna.