The University of Illinois and Champaign-Urbana — with its variety of music, specifically jazz performance groups — have brought five talented freshman musicians together to create something much bigger than themselves.
Josh Spinner, freshman in FAA, released two singles in 2022 under his name on Spotify. While “I Feel” and “Desert Of My Mind” have each accumulated thousands of listens, Spinner felt the need to take his music to the next level.
“The BELZ is like the elevation,” Spinner explained. “You’ve got your base, but now you need the elevation. You need what people are going to see.”
Upon joining a jazz combo at the University, Spinner met drummer Brendan Baxtrom, pianist Elijah Hill, saxophonist Lawrence Parks and fellow guitarist Zach Olbur. Although they no longer play in the same group within the campus jazz program, their friendships stuck, and the five came together to form Spinner and the BELZ, a name thought of by Parks.
“We didn’t want it to be just Josh Spinner, because it’s not just Josh Spinner … everyone else has their own identity too,” Spinner said.
Although the five musicians met each other through playing jazz, the band found it difficult to name a singular genre to describe their music. While Spinner and the BELZ mainly centers around an indie sound, they also incorporate elements from a wide variety of genres, creating a jazz fusion feel.
“If you come to a show, you’ll see the vibe,” Hill said, while adding that they “don’t shy away” from branching out into different types of music. “It’s a specific sound, it’s all our influences in one thing,” Spinner said.
The group carries the instrumentation of a normal indie band, with the notable exception of Parks on the saxophone. Parks explained that his musical background was primarily jazz and that performing with Spinner and the BELZ has been a change for him.
“I’d never played this type of music before I was in this band,” Parks said.
But Spinner said that jazz has made its effect known in their band.
“With the amount of jazz we all listen to, I can’t even see our band without a horn,” Spinner said. “You couldn’t do it.”
Spinner cites the unique indie sound of the group as a reason for their increasing popularity as well.
“Indie is very DIY … it’s independent,” Spinner said. “I like that, and I think that’s why people like it so much, because it’s so raw … it’s music being made in some person’s bedroom.”
Producing music is one thing, but gaining listeners and audience members for live performances is another. Spinner and the BELZ has been utilizing social media to promote their performances since they booked their first few gigs. Spinner described himself as “a freaking work hound” when it comes to promoting his music online, specifically on the Snapchat story shared by over 4,000 members of the freshman class at the University.
“Posting on that (University) story is a risk, you never know what people are going to think,” Spinner said. “It’s very hard to post on a story to 4,000 people. It’s the only way that I thought that I could get my music and our shows out the quickest possible.”
Baxtrom agreed, saying that Spinner is the best at what he does.
“He’s just really good at all of it,” Baxtrom said. “The promo, getting the gigs. He just puts a lot into it.”
Spinner and the BELZ have played a variety of performances on campus at the University as well as in the Chicago area, where most members of the group are from.
“The gigs that we’ve done have been massive, massive breaks,” Olbur said.
The band recently performed at the Beat Kitchen venue in Chicago, a jump from the University music scene they’ve grown in.
“It was an amazing experience,” Spinner said. “It was one of those moments where you realize, ‘Hey, we’re supposed to be doing this.’”
The band has also played at Canopy Club in Urbana twice, performing most recently with Emily How.
“We’re always excited to play at the Canopy Club, it’s a nice venue,” Parks said.
Along with more performances down the road, Spinner and the BELZ said that they definitely have plenty of new music to come.
“I’m releasing this album (on) February 20,” Spinner said. “These are all songs I’ve written and the BELZ are playing and performing the songs.”
The band commented that recorded versions of songs and versions performed live can be completely different. They perform a mix of originals, covers and even some creative takes on classic jazz standards.
“We’re moving towards actually creating a song together,” Spinner said.
As Spinner and the BELZ continues to produce and perform music, the C-U community can look forward to more live performances in the future. The band said that they want to continue to grow in the C-U area before spreading to broader areas.
“If you’re very popular in your community, then you can elevate to different communities,” Spinner said. “You branch out. This is how it starts.”