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The BIG Band's Big Year

From recording a CD to performing at a jazz festival, the Moravian University BIG Band hit all the high notes.

By Therese Ciesinski
Photographs by Theo Anderson

By any measure, 2022 was an extraordinary year for the Moravian student jazz ensemble known as the BIG Band. It’s not every day that student musicians release a CD or perform at a music festival. The achievements attest to the talents of the students but also to the excellent instruction of the music department’s faculty.

Professor Neil Wetzel is the chair of the music department, director of jazz studies, and director of the BIG Band. He has taught at Moravian for more than 30 years. This year’s band is his dream team. “In fall 2021, this group came together,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, we’ve always had good musicians. These students are something special.”

Frederick Younes has played trumpet with the band since 2018. In 2023, he will graduate with degrees in chemistry and music. “Going on tour and recording has been on Dr. Wetzel’s mind for years,” he says. “Once he got our current band together, he kicked it into overdrive. It’s amazing to see how the band has grown.”

“It was an enlightening and inspiring experience to work with the kids and share and grow musical ideas.”
—Alex Meixner


Guest performer Alex Meixner (center), a renowned instrumentalist, helps students mentally prepare before their concert in Foy Hall.

Defining a Big Band

Though big bands were at the height of popularity in the 1930s and ’40s, they have never gone completely out of style. In general, a big band has anywhere from 12 to 25 musicians and consists of four sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm. The original bands played swing, a type of upbeat, energetic dance music.

Moravian’s BIG Band performs swing and jazz standards as well as modern works. It has 30 student musicians, more than the norm, which speaks to the popularity of the ensemble. Jesse Leahey ’23, a music performance major, plays the tuba. “It’s unusual to have a tuba in a big band,” Leahey says. “I asked to join, and Dr. Wetzel had a place for me. I’m really grateful to have the experience.”

Playing through COVID

What makes the band’s accomplishments this year even sweeter is the challenge that came before. For more than a year, COVID made rehearsals difficult and live performances impossible. Rehearsals took place outside under a tent, with students lugging instruments and equipment in and out. The horn players wore masks with slits for their mouthpieces, and the instruments were fitted with filters and thick bell covers to contain the virus in case a student was infected.

“It was tough playing through all that material,” says Mitchell Hourt ’24, a music education major who plays trombone and accordion. “We’d often say, ‘We’ll have the best lungs of anyone when this is done.’”


Backstage, band director Neil Wetzel takes students through some warm-ups before the BIG Band’s performance in Foy Hall.

Recording a CD

In the spring of 2022, the BIG Band recorded a CD of jazz tunes at Morningstar Studios in East Norriton Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Though there’s a great recording studio on campus, Wetzel wanted the students to have that experience at a professional studio. As for the group’s process for deciding on songs to record, he says, “We chose those they performed really well and a mix that could show their range.”

The CD includes standards such as “Body and Soul” and “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” The title track, “Universe City,” is a new composition by music department faculty member Tony Gairo and commemorates Moravian’s new status as a university.

The recording took two days, with instrumentals recorded the first day and vocals the next. “It was an awesome experience,” says Michaela Madaio ’23, a music education major. A co-student director of the band, Madaio plays flute, clarinet, piccolo, and saxophone. “The people at the recording studio were super friendly. We had never recorded together before, but we got most of the songs in one take."

Producing the CD provided a terrific opportunity for a Moravian student who is not a member of the band. Lila Shokr ’23 designed and illustrated the packaging. She researched album art and music posters from the jazz era and found a minimalist style that mimicked the music and incorporated abstract shapes.

“I was blown away by Lila Shokr’s design work,” says Wetzel. “It is fabulous!”

Taking the Show on the Road

To help promote their CD, the ensemble traveled to Delaware in October to perform at the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival. “The crowds were extremely receptive,” Wetzel says. “Our venues were a little unusual. Through a student connection, we were invited by a church. We did two performances outside on the street under a tent.”

The trip helped build a sense of camaraderie and community among band members. “It was like going on tour,” says Mitchell Hourt ’24. “It was wonderful to be with people who have the same drive and passion for music. For two hours, we made the audience forget about the world, forget about their troubles.”

Some ensemble members also performed jazz vespers services at two local churches. “A jazz mass was entirely new to me,” Hourt says. “Our last number was ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ Everyone was clapping and singing along. It was an amazing experience.”

Coming Home

In November, the band gave its fall performance at Foy Concert Hall, playing works by Chick Corea and Miles Davis, among others, and including arrangements by special guest artist Alex Meixner. Born and raised in Allentown, Meixner is a world renowned multi-instrumentalist specializing in the accordion whose music blends elements of jazz, polka, and pop. He was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2007 and was recently inducted into the International Polka Hall of Fame.

An educator as well as a performer, Meixner workshopped with smaller jazz combos on campus and gave accordion lessons. The students adored him. “Alex is so supportive, such a wonderful character,” says Hourt. “He’s a fine, fine musician and teacher.”

The feeling was mutual. “They are a tremendous group of musicians,” says Meixner. “The concert went great. It was an enlightening and inspiring experience to work with the kids and share and grow musical ideas.”


Growing a Distinctive Program

A number of students from this memorable year will graduate this spring. “I knew at the first rehearsal that these student musicians were special,” says Wetzel. “This has been a pinnacle. But they move on.”

He says the department has about 80 music majors currently, up from 60 when he became chair six years ago, and he estimates that about 200 Moravian students take music classes or participate in ensembles each year.

“Moravian is putting out really top-notch music majors,” Wetzel says. “Our ensemble is professional level.” Universe City proves there’s no hyperbole in that statement.

Therese Ciesinski is an award-winning writer who covers a broad range of subjects and has been published in Garden Design, This Old House, Vegetarian Times, Coastal Design, and Coastal Home magazines and on among other print and online media.


Lila Shokr ’23 designed the CD digisleeve.
Photo credit: Nick Chismar


Listen for Yourself

The Moravian University BIG Band’s new CD, Universe City, is a collection of jazz standards and features a new work, “Universe City.” Commissioned by the Moravian University music department and written by faculty member Tony Gairo, the title track celebrates Moravian’s new status as a university. The CD digisleeve was designed and illustrated by Lila Shokr ’23. CDs are $10 and available by emailing the music department at or calling 610-861-1650. You can also access tracks from the CD on Spotify and iTunes.