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Tweens, teens and all that jazz

Published on: January 01, 2009

The gym at Interlake High School in Bellevue is filled to capacity: Kids in the stands are clapping while those on the floor are playing -- but it's not basketball, it's jazz. Welcome to the Eastshore Jazz Festival, one of many local student festivals where young jazz musicians have an opportunity to perform as well as hear bands from other middle and high schools in the Pacific Northwest.

The all-day festival showcases almost 500 students, representing 17 jazz ensembles from 11 schools. Each ensemble, composed of 20-25 musicians, has its own "look," ranging from brightly colored T-shirts to black blazers with tuxedo ties. The quality of playing is impressive; even more amazing is when an individual student takes the spotlight to improvise, composing on the spot but within the structure of the complicated music they're performing. It's intense and exciting but above all, it's fun. And there's no question that these kids feel the music.

In an age of techo, tri-hop, rap and alternative rock, it may be surprising that many Puget Sound teenagers are so passionate about jazz. They're listening to Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Dizzy Gillespie; playing arrangements by Bassie and Ellington, and also exploring Latin jazz. These young musicians jam before school, study jazz at summer camps and spend hours learning the complex language of this purely American art form.

Although high school jazz bands have existed in greater Seattle for years, there's definitely a growing interest in jazz among middle and high school musicians.

Erika Floreska, director of education for Lincoln Center's prestigious Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival in New York, wants to know if there's a "jazz elixir" in Pacific Northwest water. Or if the rain is keeping young jazz musicians inside so they practice longer. How else to explain what she calls the "remarkable and unparalleled" fact that last year, four of the 15 finalists (out of more than 110 entries) in the Essentially Ellington competition were from greater Seattle.

Last year, Roosevelt High School's 20-member jazz band, which placed first in 2002, won second place at Essentially Ellington; Mountlake Terrace High School's Jazz Ensemble came in third and Shorewood High School's jazz band received an honorable mention. Garfield High School -- which took first place in 2003 and second in 2002 -- also made it to the finals.

Floreska attributes the success of the area's high school jazz bands to three things: great teachers, strong programs and the leadership of Clarence Acox at Garfield High School and Scott Brown at Roosevelt. She also believes camaraderie among different high school districts creates a positive environment that breeds good musicians and the love of jazz.

"There's a healthy competition and a connectiveness between districts and schools, that creates a culture that supports jazz," she says.

Floreska believes jazz appeals to teenagers on several levels. "Jazz is exciting because it's new yet old -- there's a feeling of being a part of history but when you solo, you are in the moment, creating your own music," she says.

Brown, band director for the highly acclaimed Roosevelt jazz band, says the spirit and freedom to improvise within the context of music appeals to young musicians. Based on his 21 years at Roosevelt, Brown believes the secret to successful jazz bands is deeply involved parents and strong middle school teachers, who introduce young students to jazz and build a solid foundation that encourages kids to play in high school.

According to Mike Mines, the band director at Valley View Middle School in Snohomish, middle school is often a child's first exposure to jazz. Sixth graders will hear the school jazz band and then ask him how they can join. He holds auditions in the spring and accepts only about half of the kids -- who must also play in the concert band -- for the 23-member jazz band. Although it's a for-credit class, the band meets every day before school. Cheerfully arriving at school an hour early is not only testament to how much the kids enjoy playing but to the parental support required to get them there.

To accommodate all of the kids who love jazz, many middle and high schools also have "open" jazz bands that operate more like clubs, playing before or after school and often requiring a fee to pay teachers a stipend. Band directors themselves are the unsung heroes of jazz programs, spending hours at rehearsals, helping individual students and attending evening and weekend festivals

The non-credit jazz bands may only meet two times a week, but the kids are just as serious and committed as those in audition-only classes. For many students, their goal is to move up to the more advanced jazz; for others, the camaraderie of the jazz band is part of the appeal.

According to Roosevelt's Brown, students who listen to jazz recordings and attend live concerts have an edge, as do those who have an opportunity to take private lessons. Brown acknowledges that social and economic issues are a huge challenge in less-affluent areas. He applauds private sector support such as the Triple Door's Young Artist Fund, which recently made grants to both Roosevelt and Garfield's jazz bands.

What types of kids are attracted to jazz? Mines of Valley View Middle School observes that kids in jazz band tend to excel in academics and usually are involved in sports, dance or other activities. He also acknowledges that they come from stable families because of the extra time and financial commitments.

David Bentley, who directs the jazz bands at Mercer Island High School and Islander Middle School, describes many of his players as "high-achieving kids who are looking for a challenge." Bentley's jazz band has been so popular at the middle school that the high school now has two non-credit jazz bands in addition to its award-winning high school jazz ensemble, which placed first in last year's Bellevue Jazz Festival.

Bentley, who's been band director on Mercer Island for more than 20 years, believes jazz is gaining popularity with teens because current popular music is not especially challenging or complicated. "This moves kids who are interested in music to explore jazz. There's a structure in jazz but it also offers creativity through improvisation, and this appeals to kids who are serious about music," he explains.

Valley View's Mike Mines agrees. "Improvisation is the crux of jazz. It's what makes jazz different from concert band, not just the style of music but the creative element of composing. Improvisation is the hardest thing to do-to compose on the spot while performing. It's a challenge that requires a higher level of thinking.

"Even kids who breeze through academics can always find a challenge playing in the jazz band," Mines adds.

Deborah Ashin is a marketing consultant, freelance writer and mother of teen-age twins who are jazz musicians.

Recommended buying: KPLU School of Jazz CD

If you want to introduce your kids to jazz but also let them hear what kids their age can accomplish, get a copy of this unique CD, which showcases jazz bands from 10 local high schools and one middle school. Developed by KPLU but inspired and supported by the Boeing Co., it features jazz ensembles from Washington Middle School as well as the following high schools: Ballard, Edmonds-Woodway, Garfield, Kent-Meridian, Mountlake Terrace, Newport, Roosevelt, Shorewood and Stadium. All proceeds support local music education programs. Available for $12 at various Sonic Boom Records locations.

Jazz Resources

Listening to Jazz

  • KPLU 88.5 FM: National Public Radio with focus on jazz. Check website for local jazz events.
  • KSER 90.7 FM: This independent, non-commercial radio station presents Jazz in the Schools CDs recorded by local middle and high school jazz bands. Sundays from 2-4 p.m. 

Enjoying Live Jazz

The following venues are appropriate to take teenagers and offer unique opportunity for a special evening.

  • Jazz Alley
    2033 6th Ave. (at Lenora), Seattle, 206-441-9729
    Ideal for a special evening with teens, this intimate venue features major jazz artists in a sophisticated setting. The cost of tickets depends on the musicians but averages $25; (kids under 12 are free at most shows; student discounts offered on certain nights). For best seats, make reservations for an early dinner (note: menu is pricey). 
  • Triple Door
    216 Union St., Seattle, 206-838-4333
    This very chic club, which presents top names in jazz, welcomes all ages to its main stage shows until 9:30 p.m. Teens enjoy the menu from Wild Ginger, which is located upstairs. Triple Door recently established a charitable fund to support public high school jazz bands by hosting benefit concerts. Garfield and Roosevelt high schools will each received $5,000 this year from The Triple Door Young Artist Fund. 
  • Tula's Restaurant and Nightclub
    2214 Second Ave. (Belltown), Seattle, 206-443-4221
    This reasonably priced venue (tickets range from $5-$12) serves Greek food and is a good choice for a family jazz experience. Check out The Jazz Police, an award-winning ensemble that performs the second Sunday of each month from 3-7 p.m. ($5). All-ages are welcome at any show until 10 p.m. 
  • The Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra (SRJO)
    Is it a coincidence that three of the musicians in the Northwest's premier big band jazz ensemble are also high school band directors (Scott Brown from Roosevelt; David Bentley, Mercer Island; Clarence Acox, Garfield)? They perform at Kirkland's Performing Arts Center and Benaroya Hall. SRJO also offers educational outreach activities. Check the website for upcoming concerts. 
  • Earshot
    This non-profit organization dedicated to jazz in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest presents an annual jazz festival with a range of concerts. The Web site offers a comprehensive calendar of jazz events. 

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