Brazos Valley in Blue: The story of jazz in the Brazos Valley


The warm light of chandeliers reflects off of the dark hardwood floor as the quiet chatter and footsteps of students create a living backdrop for the textured drums, thrumming bass, plucky guitar and bell-like voice of a grand piano playing in the corner.

While many people might assume that this live performance is the background for the everyday lives of students passing by, to the members of Blueshift Collective, they may as well be on a stage in the middle of the room.

The music thrums and changes tempo, seeming to have a life of its own. It drifts into new melodies before circling back to familiar territory like a pair of friends realizing their conversation went on a tangent. There’s a push to every note played. There’s a pull in every note heard. A small crowd gathers at the entryway to the Memorial Student Center’s Flag Room on the Texas A&M University campus to listen. In the span of a few bars, Blueshift has gone from a tucked-away corner to the center of attention.

Born to be Blue

Blueshift is a freeform jazz ensemble composed of mechanical engineering junior and guitarist Tristan Rappon, pre-med nutrition junior and percussionist Ibrahim Mohaweche, mechanical engineering junior and pianist Gareth Allen, and telecommunications junior and bassist Chance Sutton. 

Tristan, Gareth and Ibrahim met in an engineering class fall semester of 2022. Chance joined later after meeting the trio in Tristen’s apartment complex where the group would meet on the roof to play together. Over time, the four members became fast friends and began playing gigs together, despite their busy schedules. 

Regardless of whether they’re a casual listener or an aspiring artist, everyone’s journey with music is different, and the members of Blueshift are no different.

Having grown up with a deep passion for music, Tristan was inspired by his professional jazz guitarist and mentor to dedicate himself to the study of jazz music. Though he had a musical background, Ibrahim wasn’t interested in playing jazz until Tristan wore him down and he joined Blueshift. Gareth played in high school before joining Blueshift to keep up his musical skills in college. Chance has played music since middle school, but only started playing upright bass after joining Blueshift.

As students at Texas A&M, each member of Blueshift has a course load they have to balance with their love of music. 

“We used to play once a week in [the Flag Room], but we can’t do that much [during the busy times of the semesters like finals],” Gareth notes. “We’ve been trying our best, [but] school always comes first for us.”

The self-made group serves as an escape from the busy day-to-day of college life, and each member has found a sense of peace in the smooth melodies of jazz. 

“It’s the freedom to just improv whatever, whenever you want,” Ibrahim says.

“There’s a lot of creativity through [jazz],” Gareth adds. “We just do what we want and we have a lot of fun doing it.”

The Godfather

The members of Blueshift aren’t the only members of the Brazos Valley community who have found a love for the improvisational melodies of the jazz genre.

When he retired from touring the country with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Greg Tivis decided to settle down in the Brazos Valley, but the piano and trumpet master never intended to stop playing jazz. His first regular gig in the Brazos Valley was at the Hilton College Station Hotel & Conference Center playing the piano by the lobby bar, but Greg would quickly amass a collection of other jazz musicians to form jazz duos, trios, a New Orleans jazz band and a swing band. 

Now referred to as the “Godfather of Jazz in the Brazos Valley” by his peers, Greg is one of the most revered figures in the Brazos Valley jazz scene. 

“There wasn’t much jazz being played when I first got [here],” Greg says. “It was the growth of the coffeehouse scene and the opening of Luigi’s that kicked it all off.”

With the help of his friends, Greg was able to start a jazz night school that hosted classes for all skill levels three semesters a year for nine years. There were students from 9 to 90 years old attending the same classes, Greg recounts.

“When we’d have overflows we’d host workshops where we would talk about a particular artist for the night,” Greg says. “I didn’t even know I could teach, I don’t even have a degree!”

Singin’ in the Rain

It was at one of these jazz night schools that a retired man from Michigan and a young Bryan/College Station native met and created their own jazz duo.

Guitarist Rick Stearns has had a passion for music since high school, playing in bands and at small gigs all of his life. He moved to Texas for his job as an engineer in the oil field and settled down in College Station with his wife. 

Saxophone player Delvin Twitty works for the county appraisal district during the day but plays jazz with Rick at night. Raised in College Station and moving to Houston after college, Delvin discovered his love for music and jazz in his adult years, quickly picking up the saxophone and learning how to play by ear while listening to old records.

“I heard him say ‘I don’t read music I just play it by ear’ and I said that’s a guy I need to know,” Rick recounts.

“I was walking to my truck and here comes Rick and he asks me for my phone number saying we ought to get together and play,” Delvin adds.

Since then, the two have been playing jazz together any chance they get. They’ve been together for five years through the good times and the bad. Both men are widowers having lost their wives in the time that they’ve played together; their friendship and joint love for music has remained a comforting support through the hardest times. 

“It was tense through my wife’s illness and it’s a real relaxing thing to do,” Rick says. “We enjoy each other’s company too.”

“It’s a mutual feeling,” Delvin agrees. “And it’s just a love of music too, even if I wasn’t playing with Rick I’d be playing at home. When you find someone that you’re comfortable with and you enjoy playing with it’s an awesome thing.”

Oh Captain, My Captain

Fighting against the modern adage of “jazz is dead,” the Brazos Valley Jazz Society’s mission is to keep live jazz alive in the heart of Texas.

This non-profit organization is dedicated to spreading awareness of jazz to the Brazos Valley and even provides resources to music teachers at schools who want to teach their students about the classic genre.

The organization also hosts concerts every year. From an annual professional jazz musician concert that brings in a nationally recognized artist, to the beloved Christmas concert featuring local jazz artists, the BVJS is dedicated to the preservation of jazz in all of its forms, says Peter Lieuwen, BVJS president and professor emeritus of music at Texas A&M.

“Jazz is a uniquely American sound and art form,” Peter says. “If you haven’t heard it, I think once you go out and listen to it you’ll see the value.”

The unique background of jazz and its ties to socioeconomic and political movements make it unique. The fact that it’s a purely American art form that has transcended to the global stage shows how healthy and alive it is, Peter explains.

“There are different kinds of jazz,” Peter says. “I don’t particularly care for some styles of jazz, but I love others. The only way to find out if you like it is if you try it.”

The Tell-Tale Heart 

The greenery across Luigi’s and its strikingly rustic design will make any Brazos Valley resident feel as if they had stepped through a portal and found themselves in a rustic Italian villa. As a partner with the BVJS, the restaurant’s atmosphere is enhanced by the frequent live music performances on the stage in the middle of the dining space. 

Johnny and Lisé McNally have been performing their entire lives, both of them finding a love for jazz at a young age. After performing across the globe for most of their lives, the couple settled in Navasota to be closer to family. When they arrived in the Brazos Valley, they were surprised by the size and life of the jazz scene in the region.

“To find jazz in the Brazos Valley of all places — which you would expect to just be country and western — was a real surprise,” Johnny says.

Since the advent of the digital age, fewer and fewer venues have hosted live music, Lisé says. But the reliable and constant support of Luigi’s has made it the heart of jazz in the B/CS area.

“Even after coming back from [COVID-19] Luigi’s insisted on having live music,” Lisé says. “The owner of Luigi’s was a jazz musician and he would insist on having live music every night of the week.”

Over 14 years ago, Greg Tivis started First Sunday Jazz, a monthly jazz jam session open to the public hosted by Luigi’s. These “jam sessions” feature local artists like Rick and Delvin, Johnny and Lisé, and Blueshift Collective. Through their years of globe-trotting adventures, Johnny and Lisé both agree that their favorite performances were when they played at Luigi’s together.

I Love You Tomorrow

While sitting in his office, Texas A&M Jazz Ensemble Director Christopher Hollar drums and sings along to the beat of a New Orleans jazz tune. To Christopher, what makes jazz special is the fact that an artist can play the same song one way tonight and play it completely differently the next, he says. Within the same breath, Christopher altered the rhythm and style of the song he was drumming, changing it from a classic Dixieland standard to a Samba beat. He continued to sing along; every note and word was the same, but the energy and feeling of the song had completely changed.

“Most of the kids who play in [the Jazz Ensemble] are engineering majors,” Christopher says. “They [joined] because they love to play music, jazz in particular.”

The two Texas A&M Jazz Ensembles usually play twice a year. The group is entirely made up of students who attend the university, and competition to get a seat is fierce.

“I’m the only [director] that will cut kids,” Christopher says. “This isn’t a 100-200 piece orchestra or symphony, I only have so many seats and I’m going to pick the best players.”

The reason behind Christopher’s cutthroat attitude is because of how much interest in jazz has grown in the student body. Every day he gets emails from students who are interested in joining the ensemble expressing their passion for the art.

“When I started the jazz band it was small, and now we have two ensembles and I’m thinking of adding a third,” Christopher adds.

Time Moves Slow

Every year, more and more talented young students continue to come to Texas A&M, bringing their passions and skills with them. It’s this passion for music that fuels Blueshift’s insistence on staying together and playing for free just to be able to play. 

Old and new blood alike share this passion for the art of jazz. The dynamic duo, Rick and Delvin, both agree that they’ll keep playing until they drop.

Since their days of playing at First Sunday Jazz Jams, Johnny and Lisé have left the Brazos Valley to continue playing gigs together, spreading their joy through jazz into Arizona. The legacy they left behind lives on through other musicians who continue to play regularly at Luigi’s. 

Even Greg, the Godfather of jazz, keeps his eyes and ears open for the new talent that is constantly coming to the area with hopes of further expanding the jazz scene.

Jazz is far from dead, especially in the Brazos Valley. From its local rebirth that started with Greg to the creation of the BJVS and recent student-led groups like Blueshift, the genre is nothing less than a thriving part of Texas culture.