Meet the New England Jazz Ensemble

Walter Gwardyak - Composer/arranger/pianist/artistic director

Autobiography - Growing up in New Haven, CT, as a child in a large Polish family, I heard classical music, as well as the popular music of the day, constantly on the radio at my parents’, grandparents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ houses. We lived for many years in a three-family house with our grandparents and other family members; my cousins and I were constantly exposed to popular music and jazz, along with Chopin and the Russians composers. Somewhere along the way, I heard Prokofiev’s  Peter and the Wolf for the first time and will never forget when I saw the work performed live with a ballet company. 

There were always opportunities to play and sing at family and church gatherings – my first instrument was the accordion, and I often played with one of my uncles on his violin. In Poland, live music is highly prized and played at all kinds of gatherings, especially when people want to sing and dance. I also had the chance to play in my school drum corps and play the organ at our church. 

In the 8th grade, my parents bought a piano which they crammed into the dining room, and I started piano lessons with Eddie Saranec, a local pianist and band leader who owned a music store and taught piano on the side. He focused on the American Song Book and helped his students find work in the dance bands and ensembles that abounded in those days when work was plentiful. I had an advantage as I played both piano and accordion. 

Eddie himself was not an arranger, but he taught theory and the rudiments of arranging. I paid for my lessons myself with money I earned working for my grandfather in his soda shop at first and then with fees from performing with my band, the Guardsmen. When I went to college, I continued with my band which gave me the opportunity to write arrangements for all types of functions, including dances, weddings and parties. This led to playing piano and writing arrangements for the most successful New Haven bands, led by Pat Dorn and Arnold Most. I sometimes hired one of my cousins for the job of copying parts, as this was my least favorite aspect of writing music (now, of course we use computers). Writing and playing was a good way to experiment and learn as I went. Further studies with Don DeFalla and jazz improvisation lessons with Don Friedman added to my understanding of arranging and playing jazz. I practiced a lot, and, in the late 1960s, I was fortunate to be hired for a summer as pianist for the Buddy Rich band which was on tour with new repertoire from his latest CD, Mercy, Mercy, recorded at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. 

In the 1970s (through the 1990s actually), I performed with the New Haven-based Sonny Costanzo Orchestra. Sonny held a Sunday night series in various restaurants in Southern Connecticut and would bring in nationally-known jazz figures like Zoot Sims, George Coleman, Frank Foster, Clark Terry, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Heath, Sal Nistico, Gerry Mulligan, Curtis Fuller, Pepper Adams, John Faddis and Phil Wilson.  As the piano player (in an excellent trio with Paul Brown on bass and Nick Forte on drums), I needed to be prepared for anything – whatever the visiting artist wanted - with no rehearsals. 

Also, In the 1970s, while continuing to play in commercial bands in Connecticut and New York City, I created a rock band with horns and a singer, called the Underground Movement, which attracted the attention of the famous arranger from RCA, Hugo Winterhalter (a world-famous arranger who worked with the biggest US acts, like Eddie Fisher). He came to one of my band’s recording sessions and that led to my studying arranging with him over a summer. An example of something Winterhalter told me was to overwrite by which he meant fill all the measures all the time in the arrangement because it’s easier to take something out in the studio than to add something in at that point. He showed me what voicings to use for the instruments in the orchestra. Winterhalter wrote for RCA and hired the best jazz musicians, like Ron Carter. Earlier he had arranged music in the 1950s and 60s for Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Dinah Shore, Raymond Scott and Thornhill. At RCA he wrote for Harry Belafonte, Eddie Fisher, Billy Eckstine, Jimmy Heath, and the Ames Brothers. He became a role model for me, and I almost made it to Los Angeles but for a tragic incident. 

Along the way, I got to know Marty Kugel, who had a recording studio in New Haven on Willow St. I took my band in for a recording session there, and he subsequently hired me to work on arrangements for his studio. When Marty moved to a bigger job at Polydor in New York City, he brought me along. One of the high points of that work was working with Herman’s Hermits, the English rock group, which came to New York to record – I did arrangements and played on several of their recordings. Unfortunately, just as Polydor was making it really big and moving to Los Angeles, Marty Kugel had a heart attack (in his late thirties) and died. 

Staying on the East Coast and living in New York off and on, I arranged and conducted a stage show in 1984 at the Sands for Nick Apollo Forte, the star of the Woody Allen movie Broadway Danny Rose.  I accompanied him on ABC and CBS network TV, appearances. The arrangements for Nick Apollo Forte’s show were also played by the Tonight Show band for Nick’s West coast appearances. Also, in the 1980s, I worked with the off-Broadway touring company as the piano player in Ain’t Misbehavin’. 

In the early 1990s, I began a new phase of my career, teaching in the College (Diploma) program at the Hartford (CT) Conservatory. For twenty years, between 1991 and 2011, I taught harmony, theory, arranging, jazz piano and improvisation and was, for ten of those years, the Dean of Music for the program. This was satisfying work – the students were responsive and practiced hard. Many of them became accomplished musicians, and some of them have had excellent achievements in composing and arranging. 

Also in the early 1990s, Mike Jones, a visionary trumpet player brought me in on a new venture he was starting – a big band manned by top players from New York to Boston which would perform jazz arrangements and serve as a composers’ forum. Rather than focus on commercial engagements, the band rehearsed weekly in a bar or restaurant and gave the occasional concert with guest artists. Since those early days, the New England Jazz Ensemble has produced 6 CDs, the latest released in April, 2018 – the jazz Peter and the Wolf. I wrote the through-composed piece based on the Prokofiev. My colleagues, Jeff Holmes and John Mastroianni, wrote other charts forming a suite of pieces with themes from the original. I serve as the musical director of the NEJE. Steve Bulmer is president of the board. 

In the past 10 years, I have developed a nice relationship with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, I write arrangements for jazz pieces that they sometimes perform with the full orchestra, as well as provide arrangements for the Jazz and Strings program and the Jazz in the Schools program. I am also their in-house jazz pianist. I also do similar work with the Wallingford Symphony, Waterbury Symphony and New Haven Symphony Orchestra, and last year, the Jackson (MI) Symphony Orchestra.


Composer, arranger, performer and educator Jeffrey W. Holmes is Professor of Music and Director of Jazz & African-American Music Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Holmes received his Bachelors and Masters degrees from the Eastman School of Music. He is a nationally published and commissioned composer/arranger and multiple recipient of National Endowment For The Arts Jazz Composition Grants. Holmes has written music for John Abercrombie, The Big Apple Circus, Ernie Watts, Max Roach, Yusef Lateef, Doc Severinsen, Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, as well as numerous works for military, college, high school/junior high school jazz, concert and marching ensembles. 

Featured on the Jazz at Kennedy Center Series with the Billy Taylor Trio, Holmes subs regularly with the Paul Winter Consort, is a member of the 11 piece classical ensemble Solid Brass, is lead trumpeter for the New England Jazz Ensemble, leader of the Jeff Holmes Big Band; and drummer with Amherst Jazz Orchestra. He is a former panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts and columnist for JAZZPLAYER Magazine. Holmes has undertaken world tours, made several recordings, including his latest (Oct. 2012) Jeff Holmes Quartet release "Of One's Own," and appeared as a guest conductor/clinician/adjudicator. 

Jeffrey Holmes has performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Bellson, Vanguard Orchestra (Thad Jones/Mel Lewis), Sheila Jordan, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mathis, Mel Torme, David Goloschokin, John Abercrombie, Slide Hampton and numerous NYC Broadway shows. 

At UMass Amherst, he currently directs the award-winning Jazz Ensemble I and Studio Orchestra and is Artistic Director of the Jazz In July Improvisation Workshops.

John Mastroianni - composer/arranger/woodwinds

John has performed, toured and/or recorded with artists such as Mel Lewis, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Smokey Robinson, Louie Bellson, Charli Persip and Supersound, Harvie Swartz, Jim McNeely, Jay Leonhart, Rufus Reid, Gerry Mulligan, Lew Anderson, Clint Holmes, Roger Kellaway, the Glenn Miller Band, Sonny Costanzo, Johnny Mathis, Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Donna Summer, Tony Bennett, Barry Manilow, Nick Brignola, the New England Jazz Ensemble, and many others! He also has performed with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, the Norwalk, New Haven, and Hartford Symphonies, and at the Foxwoods, Mohegan Sun, Shubert, Palace, Goodspeed Opera House and Oakdale theaters. John also played in the orchestra for the Broadway(NYC) production of TheThree Penny Opera and has been a featured artist at the New England Saxophone Symposium. John's three recordings as a leader, entitled Cookin' On All Burners (Stash), The Time Being (Jazz Alliance), and Live at the Silvermine (Jazzheads), have all earned him critical acclaim.  He is also a featured soloist and composer/arranger on the New England Jazz Ensemble recordings, Version 3.0 (Brownstone), Storm Before the Calm (Sea Breeze), and Wishes You A Cookin' Christmas (Sea Breeze).  John is currently a performer and recording artist for the Jazzheads label (NYC). 

In addition to being a free-lance musician, John performs with his own quartet, and leads his own sixteen piece jazz orchestra for which he composes and arranges all the music. John's music has been performed and recorded by his quartet and jazz orchestra, the Sonny Costanzo Big Band, the John Allmark Jazz Orchestra, the Army Blues Band (Washington D.C.), the New England Jazz Ensemble, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, DIVA, and many high school, college, and professional jazz ensembles throughout the United States. His big band charts are currently published by Walrus Music Publishing/Otter Distributors, and Barnhouse/Smart Chart Music Publications. 

John earned a B.S. in Music Education and a B.M. in Jazz Studies from the University of Bridgeport, and an M.A. in Jazz Performance/Composition from New York University. He has studied saxophone with Phil Woods, Dick Oatts, Joe Lovano, and Gary Klein, and composition with Jim McNeely, Bill Finegan, Tom Boras, Neil Slater, and Mike Carubia. 

John has taught at New York University, Albertus Magnus College, the University of Bridgeport, the New York State Summer School for the Arts, Bridgeport Central High School, New Canaan High School, Hall High School in West Hartford and currently, Canton High School where her is also District Music Supervisor. John is also an adjunct jazz faculty member at the University of Connecticut, and the founder and music director of the Young Artists Summer Jazz Workshop. In December 2002, John was named by SBO Magazine as one of 50 directors in the United States that make a difference, and in March 2004, John was chosen by the Connecticut Music Educators Association (CMEA) as the Secondary School Teacher of the Year. In 2010, he was honored by Starthmore’s Who’s Who as an individual who has demonstrated leadership and achievement in his profession. John was chosen as the 2013-14 West Hartford Public Schools Teacher of the Year, and he was a quarter finalist for a 2014 Music Educator GRAMMY Award. Most recently, John has been named the 2014 Connecticut Teacher of the Year!