Robert Mignone has taught mathematics for 50 years, 40 of them at the College of Charleston, and he has this to say about his former student Jay Van Raalte ’20: “She is the best mathematics student I have ever had.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Van Raalte was a shoo-in to receive the Department of Mathematics’ top honor, The Ewa Wojcicka Award, before graduating this past summer (a year early, it should be noted). Named after a beloved CofC professor who died way too young in 1996 after a car accident, the award recognizes students who display exceptional ability, creativity and potential in mathematics.
“Needless to say, the award means a great deal to us,” says Mignone. “Jay so perfectly fits the paradigm of the award.”
Like Wojcicka, Van Raalte can see the beauty in a complex math problem just as easily as others can see it in a work of art.
“Often students in a math class are too focused on their grades to notice those other sorts of things,” says mathematics professor Alex Kasman. “Ewa was a talented researcher who had a deep and contagious love of mathematics that she shared with her students. The math department tries to choose someone like her to receive the award named in her honor. Jay also finds joy in mathematics and is able to convey that to students, which is what makes her such a good tutor. She was an obvious choice to be this past year’s recipient.”
What’s interesting, however, is that Van Raalte, 21, has no plans for now to pursue a career with her impressive math skills now that she has her degree. That’s because she’s not just a math star. She’s also a rock star. Van Raalte can play a guitar (and write songs) as well as she can solve a non-Euclidean geometry problem. She co-founded a band, Jump Castle Riot, with singer Nina Murchison in high school, and played all through college, including shows in New York City and Nashville. The band has put out two albums, and Van Raalte just finished her first solo EP, titled Linearity. In 2018, Charleston City Paper voted her Guitarist of the Year. And she’s amassed more than a quarter million song streams.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” she says. “I’m very excited about what I’ve been able to do so far and where I’m going.”
Where Van Raalte planned on going – at least before the pandemic hit – was Nashville. But, like all musicians who make their livelihoods playing live shows – indeed, like most of us – she has had to put some of her plans on hold.
“It’s not just the fact that the plans themselves have changed, but the way that you live, the things that you do every day: It’s almost like being a different person,” she says. “It’s definitely made me realize how much of being a musician is the interaction – going to shows and seeing your friends and your fans and the people who work at the venues. It feels weird without that. This is this is the longest I’ve gone without playing a show probably since I was 13. I miss it a lot.”
One of her last live performances was Jump Castle Riot’s farewell show in mid-February on the outdoor deck of the Charleston Pour House, the James Island venue where she practically grew up.
“The amount of people who showed up and the amount of love that we felt that night especially just blew me away,” she says. “There were just moments toward the end of the night playing some of our signature songs where people were singing along and cheering for us, celebrating everything we had done over the last five years. It’s the only time I’ve ever cried onstage. It was the best sendoff I could imagine.”
Just because live performances are paused, however, doesn’t mean Van Raalte’s creative mind is. At her Mount Pleasant townhome – which she shares with her girlfriend, CofC geology and history major Karissa Venezia, as well as two dogs and three cats – Van Raalte has everything she needs to record her own songs and do lead guitar session work for other musicians.
“A songwriter will send me a track with him singing over some rhythm guitar chords and drums, and it’s my job to layer in the background chords and tiny little melody notes that go in between vocal lines – which you might not think about as lead guitar work, but it is,” she says, adding that she is thankful for the technology that allows her to do this kind of remote collaboration. “I’ve spent most of my time as a musician working things out with people in the studio, playing songs in different ways over and over. But now I’ll just do a number of different takes by myself at home, which is both freeing and challenging.”
The pandemic has also freed up some time for Van Raalte to challenge herself in other ways and revisit other passions – even returning to the College to take a few more classes in geology, which she minored in.
“There are some really cool geology classes that I just never had the time to take, so I’m just sitting in on those to get a better background in geology to determine if it’s something I would like to pursue at grad school at some point,” she says. “I don’t really do well sitting around, so I’m going to find something else to do – whether it’s geology or session work or another interest – while I’m not playing shows.”
Van Raalte has had that restlessness since she was young. The only daughter of two Charleston lawyers, Van Raalte was a stubborn and curious child – a curiosity which her mom (and “biggest supporter”) Lisa tried her best to satiate with frequent trips to parks, aquariums and Mommy and Me music classes.
“She has a stick-to-itiveness that explains a lot,” says her dad, Derk, the deputy city attorney for North Charleston – and, as a surfer and guitarist himself, the inspiration for two of Jay’s passions. “If it meant getting up at five o’clock in the morning to go surfing because the waves were better, if it meant repeating a guitar lick a thousand times: When she decided it was important, it really didn’t matter what it took to accomplish it. She just had an inner drive that was unusual. I didn’t have it as a kid. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Derk’s love of both music and surfing rubbed off on Jay early on, but he knew he’d created a music monster when her preschool teacher asked, “Why is your kid signing all of her school papers as Bono?” (referring to the lead singer of U2, one of Derk and Jay’s favorite bands). Still, it wasn’t until the age of 13 – after years of strumming a badminton racket – that Jay started taking guitar lessons in earnest. And, like with most things, she excelled quickly.
“She was, and still is, like a mockingbird,” says her instructor and local guitarist Scottie Frier. “I’d play a lick or riff, and she’d play it right back before I even had a chance to explain what it was or why I did what.”
Frier had barely had a chance to blink, in fact, before Jay was joining him and other artists at the Windjammer on Isle of Palms.
“It’s one thing to sound great in a practice room, but to do it live, with other musicians playing with you and spectators watching, that’s a whole different ball game,” says Frier, who is a big believer in getting onstage experience. “It’s the best learning tool that you can use to really see where you are with your craft. She eventually would get calls from some of these artists asking her to play with them at these gigs, which is a huge compliment. It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, nice playing,’ but a much bigger compliment is, ‘Are you free to play with us Friday?’ And that started happening to her – with great artists around town, at that.”
And once it even happened with the great blues legend Buddy Guy. Upon meeting the Van Raaltes in a backstage visit before his 2013 concert at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center and learning that Jay knew the blues staple “Stormy Monday,” Guy invited her to play the song with him onstage.
The fact that she had been playing guitar for less than a year didn’t faze her one bit – in fact, says Derk, it seemed effortless for her to play in front of the 2,000 people in the audience.
“My mind would have gotten the better of me, but to her it’s, ‘saw mountain, moved same,’” he says. “I don’t possess it, her mom doesn’t have those superpowers, and I don’t know where they came from.”
But this wasn’t the first time Jay’s parents had witnessed those mystifying nerves of steel. They’d seen it in her surfing competitions for years at this point.
“If there were two minutes left in a surf comp and she needed some big score to win a heat, her mom and I would be nervous wrecks on the beach watching her,” says Derk, “but Jay just went about her business.”
Indeed, Jay went about her surfing business pretty seriously – and, by age 14, she had two sponsors (Parrot Surf Shop and Mex 1 Coastal Cantina) and was traveling up and down the East Coast, as well as to Central America, for training and competitions.
In fact, it wasn’t until after a weekend of competing in the state surf championships at Folly Beach during the day and playing onstage at the Windjammer at night that her music business started to take precedence. She won the title for her age group and wowed the audience with her musical talent – but the 15-year-old also had an epiphany.
“I started realizing that you could not have two major priorities,” she says.
Adding Math to the Equation
Surfing and rock ‘n’ roll kind of go together, but math? It does all add up, though, when you consider that both her maternal grandparents were math professors at Wells College in upstate New York. She used to do all her math homework via video chat with her grandpa growing up. She and G, as she calls him, still do topography and abstract algebra problems on Sunday afternoons just for the fun of it.
“People have an intrinsic phobia of math,” she says. “They do not like it, which makes me sad. They like me right up until the words ‘math major’ come out of my mouth. There’s much more creativity than I think people realize in higher math. It almost becomes more like philosophy. It’s very theoretical and very abstract.
“I tend to downplay my mathematical achievements in favor of music, but I’m ridiculously proud to have won The Ewa Wojcicka Award,” adds the National Merit Scholar and 2014 Gold Medal recipient for the National Spanish Exam, who completed her high school degree online with Connections Academy while doing the dual enrollment program at CofC, thus allowing her to graduate a year early. “Getting such an honor from the math department helped me feel like I accomplished something to be proud of, even without pursuing a Ph.D. That door definitely isn’t fully closed. Math is a huge part of who I am, and although I won’t rule out grad school in the future, the end of my math-filled college days is bittersweet.”
Of course, Van Raalte’s college days weren’t just filled with math. In addition to minoring in geology, she also took some arts and arts management courses out of curiosity, which served her well. Particularly influential were the classes she took from arts management faculty members Mark Bryan (best known as the lead guitarist of Hootie and the Blowfish), Nathan Michel and Vince Iwinski. In Iwinski’s course on artists and band management, for example, Van Raalte was able to dedicate her final project to planning Jump Castle Riot’s first tour. And in Michel’s Songwriting class her freshman year, she wrote two of the five songs on Linearity (she also took his Introduction to Audio Production course her final semester).
“She came into both classes with significantly more experience than many of the other students, but was always eager to learn more,” says Michel. “She’s always very humble and willing to share her knowledge and experience with her classmates – and professor. She has a willingness to try on different musical styles, production techniques, chord progressions – to be a creative omnivore. It’s the mark of a mature artist, and it’s a good sign that Jay will have creative fulfillment – and a chance of success in the music business – in the years to come. Shredding on the guitar doesn’t hurt, either.”
But, when she resumes her music career full time post-pandemic, she isn’t really dreaming of shredding it big time. At least not yet. Her immediate goal is just to find enough work as a hired gun guitarist while tutoring math and teaching guitar.
“I try to keep my goals small and manageable, and even those seem a little bit unbelievable at times,” she says. “I’d like to be successful enough that I can keep playing guitar. But beyond that, I’d like to tour. I’d like to see more of the world. I’d like to make more records that I’m proud of. I have no interest in being a solo star. I just love that there’s always something new to learn, whether it’s improving your songwriting or your guitar playing or getting interested in the business side and band management side, which is a whole other thing. My grandpa put it best when he said, this could keep a genius busy for a lifetime.”