Student Profile: Hailey Niswanger

This saxophone player may be a rising jazz star, but she's keeping her feet firmly on the ground.

December 3, 2010

Any observer would say alto saxophonist Hailey Niswanger is sitting pretty. Her debut album as a leader, Confeddie—released when she was only 19—led famed music critic Nat Hentoff to sing hallelujah: jazz wasn't dying after all. And that came after the high school appearances in the Gibson/Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensemble, the international performances, or the Presidential Scholarship to Berklee. Even the non-music world has taken note of her accomplishments: the Academy of Achievement has invited her to attend its international student leader conference next March.

But her head's nowhere near the clouds. Niswanger, who also plays soprano sax, clarinet, and flute, is immersed in her own creative development—and the new Berklee Global Jazz Institute. In this focused area of study, a group of talented students study and play together under the direction of Danilo Pérez. They emphasize interdisciplinary thinking, collaboration, and giving back. Because even a soloist never performs alone.

We caught up with Niswanger right before she stepped into a very busy semester. This is a condensed and edited account of our conversation.

What's your experience been with the BGJI so far?

It was a very good thing to happen. I've always wanted to work with Danilo Pérez. I was really thrilled that he's the artistic director for this. They chose 14 musicians and divided us into a red ensemble and a green ensemble. We went to the Panama Jazz Fest and really bonded and connected with the culture. We got to teach down there, teach children. And that was an interesting experience because we had the language barrier.

I hear they're adding a third ensemble this year.

It's orange. I think we're going for some new colors.

You spent the summer playing festivals, often with the BGJI. What was your favorite festival?

I think Saratoga Jazz Festival was probably the best jazz festival I've played this summer. The crowd was so receptive to the music. They stood and hollered. Afterwards everyone would try to come up and talk to us. And we sold a ton of CDs.

What was the most surprising place you played?

Indiana! That was another interesting experience. I had no idea what to expect. It had a very small-town vibe—everyone who came to the festival lives around there—and we were coming with this really new contemporary sound. But people were really excited by this new music.

How much of your coursework is BGJI?

Most. It's about eight or nine credits. We still have to take liberal arts and our other core classes. They really try to personalize it. Each week we'd have a different artist come in and work with us. We had Dave Liebman come in—that was an amazing experience.

Your debut album, Confeddie, got a lot of attention, including the Hentoff piece. Has the attention had any effects here at Berklee?

Kids work differently, maybe—I'm sure a lot of them just don't know about it. I'm not treated any differently. I was just taken aback by how quickly the album was received and how well it was received. Nat Hentoff has so much history. It's such an honor to be recognized by him.

Are you concerned that the success of that album might pigeonhole you?

Oh no, not at all. I don't let anyone tell me what to do. I did one original on Confeddie and the rest I covered past masters—I hadn't been prepared to step out of my shell. I feel I have so much more growth that needs to happen. Now I've started to compose a whole lot more. I don't even listen to Confeddie anymore. It's just a record. It's just a marking of where I was.

What's your composing process like?

I actually haven't written too many pieces yet. I really feel like I need a lot of inspiration when I sit down to write. I can't write for nobody. "The Keeper"—that was written for my band director from high school. A year ago yesterday was the anniversary of his death. I have three main mentors at home, and Jeff was the last mentor I expected to lose. That hit me really hard, and yesterday did as well. That gave me a lot of inspiration.

What's your focus right now—coursework or career?

I'm here to study, so I'm not trying to find gigs. I will have time for that. Right now I'm here for school and getting better. I'm here to take advantage of my life while I have the time and I don't have a lot of responsibilities. I don't want to get sidetracked. Having this access to this school and these resources is really important to me. Getting big young, you get the risk of dying out.