The Prince Edward County Jazz Festival has found a different way of helping student jazz ensembles develop, and the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band (OJJB) was one of the beneficiaries of that approach this year.
Every April, the festival invites four high school bands from across Ontario to participate in a weekend in Picton. But instead of fighting for medals, the bands work together and are mentored by professional musicians.
“I really don't think music should be about competition – that's why I take all of the awards and things like that with a grain of salt, because I don't think that you can really compare. You can't really choose who the best guitar player is,” said festival creative director Brian Barlow.
The festival's student coordinator, trumpeter Blair Yarranton, proposed this new approach seven years ago. “He said that the one thing that bothered him with his school, is that all of the opportunities they had to go to festivals were competitive. He felt there was a real need for a non-competitive school jazz program. So we started that, and it's been hugely successful,” Barlow said.
“It's really great to see these kids who normally go out and compete, and don't talk to the other band because the other band is the enemy” becoming friends, he said.
The OJJB is an 18-member big band composed of Grades 8, 9, and 10 students from across Ottawa. It was invited to take part in the festival program this year, from April 15 to 17, and “it made a big difference in the band,” director Mandar Gumaste told OttawaJazzScene.ca.
“The band bonded really well! Every year is different and you are always growing, and that, but the band really clicked and gelled from being able to hang out a little bit more together, and also getting some really top-notch insight from some really heavy players.”
The band members took part in masterclasses, and worked directly with Toronto saxophonist Colleen Allen (who has played in Ottawa with Holly Cole). “She did some amazing things with the kids – I'm hoping she'll come and be a clinician here at our festival one year in the future.”
All four bands also performed in a closing show at the Regent Theatre in Picton, which was headlined by Barlow's Big Band. It was a new experience for his students, Gumaste said – having to play on a stage already set up for the professionals. “The kids have to sit down – and whatever's there, you've got to play! That's a pro gig, and they learned that, and I think they also learned to really up their game in the sense that they're good, but they have to be on the game and play from start to finish and have their 'A' game.”
The OJJB really clicked and gelled from being able to hang out a little bit more together, and also getting some really top-notch insight from some really heavy players.
– Mandar Gumaste
“We played the Thelonious Monk tune entitled 'Well You Needn't', and then we played a second-line street funk tune called 'Crescent City Stomp'. That one had a whole bunch of soloists and we actually used that … a tune that Colleen used to work in a little bit of improv and have a little bit of fun with that. And then she played with us and we did a neat little street line kind of thing – a funeral procession thing, and we ended with that.”
Gumaste said the OJJB was hoping to return in 2017. “It was a really, really great weekend. They really stepped up to play, so I couldn't be more proud.”
Barlow said that the festival likes to have the bands participate in the weekend for two years in a row. “Partly because that gives the kids a chance to come back after they know the routine – and those are the ones who are incredible the second year, because they know what to expect. They're the ones that ask the most questions and take advantage of things in a way that they didn't the first year.”
In fact, two students from Oshawa were so enthusiastic about the program, he said, that they played new instruments to be able to attend again.
“They knew that they wouldn't be in that band the following year, [and] wouldn't be able to come back. They went to their teacher and begged to come back – students pay to come, a nominal fee but they do pay – [but] the teacher said there's no position for you. One of you is a piano player and the other is a drummer, and I have a piano player and a drummer. They said we'll play anything. So the one played congas and the piano player played vibes, and they came back. When I found that out, I thought, 'This is so great, these kids just said to me we had to do anything to come back.' ”
The high school program has also fed into the festival's other youth series, its Rising Young Star program, Barlow said. In that program, one jazz student is chosen each year to perform with main-stage artists and in their own concert during the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival in August.
“The neat thing about this is that we've been doing this long enough that we've now seen students who come out here as high school students for our Jazz Education program, apply for our Rising Young Stars. Three of them have become our Rising Young Stars, and many of them have come back as main stage performers. So we have kids who we first met when they were 14 years old, who are now 24, who are coming back to perform as main stage performers. That, I think, is really important. It's great to have programs for young people, but a lot of times there's no follow-up, and I think that the follow-up that the festival is doing is really important.”
Learning from playing with older, more experienced professionals
The Rising Young Star program also takes a different approach from (for example) the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Jazz Youth Summit. Instead of having promising young musicians play with others of the same age, Barlow said, they perform with older, more experienced professionals.
“I felt that that the young people weren't going to get as much out of that. When they're all playing with young people their same age, they all have the same lack of experience. As I often say, they all play the same amount out of tune. There's nothing like a young person sitting beside an experienced professional player.”
The festival has been running the program since 2006, he said, and accepts applications from student musicians from across Canada. In 2012, the recipient was Ottawa-raised saxophonist Claire Devlin. She will perform again at the festival this year, with her trio.
“We choose one candidate and they are the focus for the whole week. They play every night with our main-stage artists. So they have to be in a position where they can get up on stage with [NYC jazz drummer] Louis Hayes or in the past Peter Appleyard, Oliver Jones, and perform with them, without much rehearsal.”
“And those young people are featured in our after-hours jam sessions, they're given a concert of their own, and we just don't throw a concert at them – there's some instruction that goes with it and some guidance, some mentoring so they can learn a little bit about what it takes to put on a concert – you know, the funny little things that we noticed the first year that they don't think about: talking to the audience, choice of material, introducing the band, things like that.”
The festival keeps track of its previous rising stars, Barlow said, with up-to-date blurbs about what they're doing on the festival's website.
“All of our Rising Young Stars have gone on to do incredible things. Our 2008 Rising Young Star just got chosen by the United States government to be staff arranger for the US Army Field Band. They've gone to Berklee, two of them have gone to the Manhattan School of Music on full scholarship. I keep regularly in touch with them all.”
“Our Rising Young Star last year, Brad Eaton, is now a member of my big band. And the age difference between youngest and oldest in my big band is 55 years!”
One benefit of this work with young people, “that I don't think anybody expected”, is that the festival “has a much younger audience than most [jazz] festivals. I know that because I go and play at the other festivals and I perform in Toronto a lot. The age of the audience and the average age of our performers last year was 40! That's really low considering Oliver Jones was here last year [at 80 years old].”
“All arts organizations from symphony orchestras to folk festivals are trying to increase their audience and get that demographic down, to get younger people interested because that's the future, you know. If you're sticking with the same audience that's been there for 40 years, they're not going to be around after a while.”
– Alayne McGregor
Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's other stories about the 2016 Prince Edward County Jazz Festival: