Interview with Director of Jazz Ensembles, Michael Allemana

Michael Allemana
Michael Allemana, Director of Jazz Ensemble (Photo credit: Liina Raud)

In addition to being the director of our Jazz Ensembles, jazz guitarist and researcher Michael Allemana is a UChicago alumnus, having earned his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology in 2020. We recently sat down with him to chat about his work within the Music Department, his life as a performer, and more.

What were some highlights of your summer?

This past summer I had quite a busy performance schedule with lots of highlights. My daughter Gabriela, a third-year jazz vocal major at Oberlin Conservatory, lived in Chicago this summer. We had several fun shows working with my trio the Regulators. Another highlight was working at Ravinia with the CSO under the direction of Marin Alsop for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Alsop programmed new compositions to be performed between the movements, and I was invited by composer and saxophonist Jim Gailloreto to perform a jazz piece Alsop commissioned him to perform between the second and third movements. Finally, this year marks the centennial of the birth of saxophone legend Von Freeman (1923–2012), in whose quartet I played for over fifteen years. To celebrate, I performed several concerts with Freeman’s son, saxophonist Chico Freeman, including opening the 2023 Chicago Jazz Festival at Millennium Park and closing the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

What are you most looking forward to in the coming school year?

Working with my enthusiastic jazz ensemble students to develop our own arrangements of a diverse set of jazz repertoire throughout the year. Also, several guest artists will visit our rehearsals to conduct improvisation workshops that will cover a host of different styles and musical approaches. Finally, the students and I throughout the year attend jam sessions held at different community venues by the South Side Jazz Coalition, a jazz non-profit headed by vocalist and jazz activist Margaret Murphy-Webb. We have lots of fun in the jazz ensemble!

What all do you do within the Music Department?

I direct the two jazz ensembles which entails auditioning student musicians, building the roster, working with students to program repertoire, hosting guest jazz artists, and collaborating with students to create creative arrangements of the tunes that we decide to perform.

What else do you do during a given week besides your role at UChicago?

My main activity is performance, both as a freelancer and in several working projects, which averages out to about three to four nights of gigs per week. I also practice at least an hour or so per day. One day per week I teach the jazz guitarists in the Jazz Studies program at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Finally, I try to find time each day to work on my latest research.

Dream meal in your dream setting?

Italian pizza in Naples, or Moqueca in Bahia, Brazil.

What book are you reading right now or have recently read?

Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music by Henry Threadgill with Brent Hayes Edwards.

What do you do to create a healthy work life balance?

I exercise daily with a mix of yoga, aerobic, and kettlebell routines. I also love to eat at new restaurants, watch documentaries (Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity has been very inspiring), listen to vinyl, and read novels and non-fiction.