July 24, 2014

Slices of Life: Jazz Professor Chip McNeill throws himself into his work

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Chip McNeill plays for the dancers.
Traffic Jam: USO Swing Night
The Chip McNeill Swingin' Quartet 
Chip McNeill and his swingin' quartet will rev up the Krannert Center lobby with the jumpin' sounds of the 1940s. The U of I Swing Society will put set the joint jumpin' as the up-tempo high-energy music encourages everyone to dance the night away.

Darrell Hoemann/The News-Gazette

Chip McNeill plays for the dancers. Traffic Jam: USO Swing Night The Chip McNeill Swingin' Quartet Chip McNeill and his swingin' quartet will rev up the Krannert Center lobby with the jumpin' sounds of the 1940s. The U of I Swing Society will put set the joint jumpin' as the up-tempo high-energy music encourages everyone to dance the night away.

By Samantha Kiesel — Chip McNeill walks down the hall in his black sneakers as jazz music floods the basement of Smith Hall. He waves with his left hand to a couple of students and clutches a soprano saxophone in his right.

He looks at his watch and picks up his pace, realizing he’s late. In Room 11, a small space with a set of drums, a piano and an old organ, he gently places his instrument on the organ bench as he greets the students preparing for the day’s jazz rehearsal.

The drummer tunes his instruments, the guitarist adjusts the volume on his amplifier, the vocalist tinkers with her mic, the saxophonist fixes his reed, and the piano player sits patiently. Chip, a 51-year-old University of Illinois jazz professor in his 11th year, adjusts his Levis and rolls up the sleeves of his black turtleneck.

He is about to start class when the saxophonist receives a text from a missing student, the bass player. He woke up late and will be here ASAP.

“I mean, come on,” Chip says with a laugh. “If I can get here, you can get here.”

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This story was written by a University of Illinois journalism student in Professor Walt Harrington’s Literary Feature Writing class taught in collaboration with The News-Gazette. Funding for the class, which was taught at the newspaper’s headquarters in downtown Champaign, came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation. The story was part of an occasional series titled “Slices of Life” that ran in the newspaper’s Sunday Living section. All the stories in the series are also collected in the book “Slices of Life.”