Iris Ornig Aims To Spread Her Love of Jazz to the East End Community - 27 East

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Iris Ornig Aims To Spread Her Love of Jazz to the East End Community

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Bass player Iris Ornig and vocalist Olivia Foschi will lead an interactive performance workshop at Southampton Cultural Center on June 1. COURTESY IRIS ORNIG

Bass player Iris Ornig and vocalist Olivia Foschi will lead an interactive performance workshop at Southampton Cultural Center on June 1. COURTESY IRIS ORNIG

Leah Chiappino on Apr 29, 2024

When East Quogue resident Iris Ornig was a teenager in rural Germany, she wanted to become a professional squash player; however, she hurt her Achilles tendon, ending her athletic ambitions. Luckily for Ornig, a friend needed a bass player in their school band, leading to a lifelong passion and career as a bassist, a journey that led her to a love of jazz.

Ornig is an instrumentalist, composer, arranger and educator. She moved from Germany to New York City in 2003 and, since then, has played with Gretchen Parlato, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Frahm, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Rodriguez, Rebecca Martin, Allison Miller, Sachal Vasandani, Helen Sung, Marcus Gilmore, Dan Tepfer, among others. She regularly plays at Manhattan’s jazz clubs such as Blue Note, 55 Bar, The Iridium, Zinc Bar and Jazz at Kitano. Her second album “No Restrictions” features Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Rodriguez, Helen Sung and Marcus Gilmore.

It was the pandemic in 2020 that brought her to the East End, a place that reminds her of the German countryside where she grew up. Now, through her new nonprofit, East End Jazz, which launched in February, Ornig aims to bring the gift of jazz to residents here as well as in New York City by teaching the community singing, scatting and the rhythm of jazz through an interactive format.

“I love Long Island,” Ornig said. “It’s beautiful. And I was just saddened that there is not a lot about jazz. Basically, if I speak to people and ask them if they like jazz, they always say, ‘Oh, I don’t know anything about jazz. I don’t listen to jazz.’ And I always try to convince them that if you have jazz, you have yourself — jazz is basically improvisation, just going through life and acting and reacting.”

Ornig’s new nonprofit plans to introduce the music to novices by hosting hands-on jazz learning opportunities with skill-building workshops and creative exploration for diverse groups and all ages.

“I want to encourage young people to think if they work hard, not if they are focused and want to learn, there is a possibility,” she said. “So that’s basically really my goal because I do believe education is very important. And some people just need to have the right kick or the right way to find how they can learn things. There’s so many possibilities to learn.”

To kick off the summer season and the nonprofit’s first workshop performance, East End Jazz is hosting an event to celebrate Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday at the Southampton Cultural Center on Saturday, June 1, at 6 p.m. The event will be interactive, with the East End Jazz quartet performing Ellington’s hits and inviting the audience to participate, whether that means snapping to the music, repeating notes, clapping along or dancing to the music. The event will begin with the audience taking part in interactive exercises led by vocalist Olivia Foschi and Ornig. The Olivia Foschi & Iris Ornig Quartet, with Ben Rosenblum on piano and Rodrigo Recabarren on drums, will perform Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Take the A-Train,” “Caravan,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “In a Mellow Tone,” among others.

The hope is to make the audience feel integrated and welcome.

“Many people say jazz is too intellectual,” said Ornig. “So therefore, I really want to give the people the opportunity to interact with jazz and listen so they don’t have that stigma.”

Ornig chose to honor Ellington with this inaugural Southampton East End Jazz event as his hits “Satin Doll” and “Take the A-Train” were among the first jazz songs she learned.

The first East End Jazz event was held in early April at the Peconic Community School’s maker fair. Ornig is already planning another Duke Ellington event at the Richwood Library in New York City, as well as an event this summer at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. Titled “Curious About Jazz — Family Jazz Jam,” the free library program will take place on Saturday, August 10, at 3 p.m. where children and their families will be able to come and learn about jazz.

Further down the road, Ornig has an idea to park a pickup truck on the beach and have a quartet play music and educate people about jazz. She also hopes to do other pop-up events throughout Long Island.

Ornig launched the nonprofit after she presented Hamptons Jazz Fest with ideas, and the board members, who are friends of Ornig’s, encouraged her to start her own nonprofit. East End Jazz now has a board and official 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. The biggest struggle for Ornig, who serves as the organization’s director, is fundraising, she said. She paid out of pocket to hire an attorney to establish the organization, but has quickly learned that a tremendous amount of complex work goes into getting a nonprofit off the ground.

“I have no idea how to do those things,” said Ornig. “I’m brand new at this. So I’m just like, ‘Okay, how do you do that? How do you step on people’s toes if you ask them for money to support something good and how do you be persistent to sell what I’m doing?’ I definitely know funding will come eventually.”

Ornig hopes to receive grants from New York State and The Huntington Arts Council, as well as from educational institutions, many of which have applications that open this fall. In the meantime, friends have supported the effort with small donations and Ornig wants to pursue corporations that might be willing to donate to the cause.

The celebration of Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday at Southampton Cultural Arts Center will take place on Saturday, June 1, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 ($10 for attendees under the age of 20). For tickets and more information, visit eastendjazz.org. Southampton Cultural Center is at 25 Pond Lane, Southampton.

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