Musicians travel to jazz conference in Atlanta

The RBHS jazz ensemble performed in Atlanta, Ga. at the Jazz Education Networks annual conference. Photo by Blaise Vogt

The RBHS jazz ensemble performed in Atlanta, Ga. at the Jazz Education Network’s annual conference. Photo by Blaise Vogt

Alyssa Sykuta

The RBHS jazz ensemble performed in Atlanta, Ga. at the Jazz Education Network's annual conference. Photo by Blaise Vogt
The RBHS jazz ensemble performed in Atlanta, Ga. at the Jazz Education Network’s annual conference. Photo by Blaise Vogt
As many students savored their last days of winter break, the members of the  jazz ensemble set up chairs and music stands in the school band room at 9:00 p.m. on the first day of the new year for a three-hour rehearsal.
It wasn’t until midnight that the 18 members, two directors, three extra students and assortment of parents and guest players boarded a charter bus for a 12-hour road trip to Atlanta, Ga. for one of the biggest jazz music conferences in the world.
RBHS band director Steve Mathews submitted a recording of the jazz ensemble last spring to the Jazz Education Network (JEN) and informed students early last fall that JEN had invited them to play at their four-day conference in January 2013. They would be joining other high school and college bands, as well as members of the professional community. Students spent the entirety of first semester digging through rigorous music that would showcase their talent as an ensemble.
Once in Atlanta, the band performed twice as a whole (once as an exhibition, another time for a panel of judges). Two combos, small groups of musicians, also performed for adjudicators over the course of the week, receiving feedback from professional jazz artists such as saxophonist Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck & the Flecktones).
Senior percussionist Joel Pruitt said the ability to meet with and perform for professionals was an invaluable experience.
“Being close to this massive amount of professionals is really, really cool for us. It’s inspiring, it’s breathtaking to watch them play,” Pruitt said. “They get paid for it, but they do it for fun, and it’s a really big inspiration for the band, I think, because you just tell yourself, ‘Man, I wish I could play like that,’ and you’re surrounded by guys that do.”
The verbal feedback on performances, though, was not the only opportunity the jazz ensemble had to gain opinions; JEN uploaded their schedule to an App for smartphones called Guidebook, which allowed conference-goers to see when and where people were performing, as well as give them a rating based on a scale of one to five stars. By the end of the conference, the jazz ensemble, Stolen Moments combo and Impressions combo had all been ranked anonymously at 4 stars or higher for each of their performances.
When not playing or gaining advice on their performances, the RBHS crew could be found visiting exhibits set up by music companies, listening in on clinics to learn more about various styles of jazz music or watching other groups perform. Sophomore Stephanie Stanley said the chance to watch professionals play was most inspiring to her and helped her recognize her desire to grow as a trombonist, maybe one day becoming a professional herself.
“I think I can take [jazz] more seriously, actually, playing my trombone and actually going back to school, and I think I can see myself being a musician later in life,” Stanley said. “Whenever you see all those other people up on stage, and they perform so well, like, anybody can have the potential to do that. And they’ve had years and years of work and practice and, I kind of really want to start working more towards that.”
Junior trumpeter Andrew Selva said he found the most value in the clinics. For instance, at a session on Afro-Cuban and other Spanish styles of music, Selva said he learned about the structure of Latin pieces and found that he was able to apply his new knowledge to the furthering of his musical talent.
“We learned all this stuff and immediately in my head I was just formulating solos and figuring out what I would do with all these Latin pieces. That was really cool because I’ve never really done anything so structured before,” Selva said. “All my solos are usually just kind of, ‘play along with the music and see what happens,’ so when you know the structure that well … it really helps — it makes [solos] sound a lot cooler when you play [them] as well as in your mind.”
Although the students learned a lot from the “field trip” of sorts, the members were given a significant amount of down-time to explore the 22-story hotel and goof off. Some of the funniest experiences, Selva and Pruitt agreed, came from senior Grant Flakne learning how to hop over balcony walls to intrude on the privacy of adjacent rooms.
“Grant discovered a way to climb over the walls separating the balconies on our floor, so we’ve been knocking on the window of [juniors] Greyson [Holliday] and Daniel [Shapiro] who are next to us, so they think there’s like, a ghost outside their room,” Selva said, laughing. “I only compounded that by walking over there and asking if someone was throwing rocks at their window or something, and as I was talking to them about it, Grant knocked again. I pretended to flip out with them, and by the time I left, they were discussing whether they should call a manager to ask if their room was haunted.”
Between messing around, attending clinics and performing for hundreds of people, each RBHS band member in attendance at the JEN 2013 conference took a bit of Atlanta home with them in what they learned in their four days there. With another big concert coming up on Jan. 24 at the Missouri Music Educators Association’s annual workshop/conference, the jazz ensemble will be able to put all their new knowledge to use as they wow another audience with their musical aptitude. For Pruitt, this means working to stay focused on the task at hand, giving his music every bit of attention in the moment to make it all it can be.
“The skill is there for us — I think everybody in the band is a killer player, that’s the only reason they’re in this band — but what comes with a mature player is the fact that every single time they sit down to play … their mind is in it 100 percent … they’re focused on what needs to happen in order to make the music happen, make the groove happen,” Pruitt said. “That’s been the biggest thing I’ve learned. We have it; we have the talent, and all we need to do is quit being lazy and put it out there like we know we should and we know we can.”
By Alyssa Sykuta