by Chuck Obuchowski
Jazz is one of America’s most acclaimed cultural exports, yet it still struggles for recognition in the country of its birth. Thanks in large part to the enthusiasm and dedication of music instructors in our public school system, the situation has begun to improve during the past few decades.
Even so, whenever there’s a budget shortfall, music programs often end up on the chopping block. In order to safeguard these precious opportunities for kids, people who understand how much the arts enrich young people’s lives are pursuing increasingly creative ways to keep the music playing.
Infinity Hall Entertainment Director Jack Forchette came up with one of those creative concepts several years ago. Why not stage a high school jazz festival at the historic music hall? By charging a small admission fee, monies could be raised for the music departments of each participating school. By publicizing the event to the community at large, more people could be exposed to the superb instrumental talent that’s been brewing in our region’s school systems. And, lastly, such a concert would allow the student musicians to experience the excitement of performing in a bona fide concert hall, working outside the familiar confines of a multi-purpose auditorium, or, worse yet, a gymnasium.
This Sunday, March 23, marks the third annual Southern New England High School Jazz Festival at Infinity Hall. Over 100 students from a half dozen schools will be taking part in the all-day event. There are three separate seatings; two schools will be represented during each segment.
Bloomfield and Berlin High Schools – both festival newcomers – will be featured during the 1:00 p.m. performance. Simsbury High and Monument Mountain Regional High School (from Great Barrington, MA) follow at 4:00 p.m. The final seating at 7:00 p.m. highlights the talents of students from Litchfield and Torrington High Schools.
Litchfield High’s Big Band Director Dan Porri notes that “the festival is one of the highlights of the year for our jazz band. The students get a thrill out of seeing the names on the backstage walls of all the great musicians who have performed at Infinity.”
Although most high school jazz festivals are structured as competitions, this one focuses on the worthiness of each ensemble, large and small. In general, the small combos will perform modern jazz compositions by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard – and will provide ample room for the musicians to improvise. In some cases, the students have created their own arrangements.
The larger ensembles will offer a wider variety of musical styles, from a swinging Nat King Cole 1950s hit to contemporary funk charts by Maynard Ferguson. Modern pop and R&B will also be on the bill, alongside an old Beatles song and the classic blues tune “Night Train.” The band directors also promise Latin jazz, vocal and gospel sounds.
Ken Fischer, leader of the Simsbury High School Jazz Ensemble, is impressed with the caliber of musicianship he witnesses among these aspiring players: “it’s exciting to see and hear students performing sophisticated jazz charts and learning about the great tradition of this music.”
While their instructors admit that most of the young people participating in Sunday’s festival will not pursue music careers, they add that this kind of experience is invaluable in teaching teens about discipline, team work and utilizing the creative side of one’s brain.
But some are inspired enough to continue their explorations. Fischer says that one of his current students is “planning on being a jazz major” in college. A Simsbury High alumnus recently earned a Masters degree from The Julliard School of Music in New York.
Wayne Splettstoeszer, who has taught at Torrington High School since 1996, calls jazz “America’s art form,” adding that “it gives kids of all ages the opportunity to express themselves in ways that other forms of music cannot.”
This Sunday, listeners will get a sneak peak at the next generation of jazz musicians, and every concertgoer’s ticket will help assure that more young players will follow in their footsteps in the years to come.