The jazz started at 7 a.m. and lasted until the late afternoon – and rarely took a break longer than the time it took for one band to leave the stage and the next one to walk on and tune up. Every 30 minutes, another student band played its heart out in Ottawa, at the MusicFest Canada Nationals from May 13 to 17.
It was an important rite of passage for student musicians, giving those who wanted to continue professionally an early step up. Ottawa ensembles and musicians did well, with four young musicians receiving notable awards and scholarships, and seven of the thirteen Ottawa ensembles earning top Gold status.
Outside the Bronson Centre, a large grey-stone converted school on a busy street in central Ottawa, tour buses pulled up, delivering eager groups of students clutching instrument cases. Students milled about outside and inside the foyer, some nervously talking, some quiet and concentrating, some looking relieved and relaxed.
Jazz bands came from from elementary, middle, and high schools; from public schools and private academies; and from almost every province in Canada, from PEI to Vancouver Island, though the majority were from Ontario and B.C., including a large Ottawa contingent. Each had received an formal invitation to attend, from having already performed well in their regional music festivals.
Inside it was all business and all jazz, as 96 student bands performed. They ranged from a clarinet choir to jazz quartets to classic big bands, and played music that included both instantly recognizable standards and modern Canadian compositions. The Senior Jazz Combo from the John McCrae Secondary School in Barrhaven (Ottawa) played all-Canadian compositions and arrangements. There was surprisingly little repetition in the music bands selected – and even some less-frequently-played numbers, especially with the smaller combos.
There was flair, concentration, and enthusiasm in the ensembles OttawaJazzScene.ca heard, and very few stumbles. Each group walked on, settled itself quickly, did a very brief sound check, and was off – with their band director usually pacing and listening from the audience as they played the three tunes which they were judged on. There was almost always a cheering section in the audience – students either from their school or waiting to play later, who greeted each ensemble with hearty applause and occasional hoots and hollers.
Then the young musicians walked off with their instruments into a clinic room, where one of their adjudicators would go over their performance with them in detail, giving them critiques and tips. At the end, they'd get a recording of their performance and of comments from the adjudicators, as well as a rating of Gold, Silver, or Bronze.
Most performances were streamed live on the internet, allowing friends, family and fellow students – as far away as the east and west coasts - to witness the performances. For those who could attend in-person, the in-theatre experience was visually, acoustically, and viscerally superior to the streaming.
Each evening, the students heard hour-long feature concerts at the Bronson Centre, mostly jazz, which performed in a theatre packed with fellow students, parents, and music fans. Concerts were by the McGill University Jazz Orchestra I (see review), the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces, Nepean All-City Jazz Band, and the Dennis Wick Canadian Wind Orchestra together with Woodshed Canadian Percussion Ensemble.
The most flamboyant show was the Tuesday evening presentation of “The Humber Experience” from Toronto's Humber College – as much an advertisement for the school as a concert, with four highly varied short performances. It opened with the college's X Ensemble performing two expressive and multi-voiced jazz instrumentals by director Mike Downes, the second with a string quartet led by violinist Drew Jurecka. It went on to feature the string quartet playing an upbeat, jazz-manouche-influenced piece by Jurecka, followed by Jurecka and cellist Matt Brubeck performing a sorrowful and lovely composition by Brubeck.
The Humber Vocal Jazz Ensemble, led by Lisa Martinelli, gave a striking performance of “In a Mellow Tone”, with voices darting in and out in a fluid and beautifully orchestrated arrangement which gave renewed zest to the tune, and followed it by a despairing and dramatic “Windmills of Your Mind”. But the audience darling was The Groove Merchants, led by drummer Mark Kelso, whose two exciting pieces got everyone on their feet with grooving horns, fast drumming, smooth R&B-style vocals, and well-choreographed dance moves.
Ottawa was represented by a Thursday evening performance by the Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB), who reprised many of their well-rehearsed pieces from previous local concerts to enthusiastic applause. The NACJB was awarded its 32nd Gold plaque this year for its adjudicated festival performance the previous day.
Several Ottawa-area student jazz musicians were recognized with individual awards. Trumpeter Matt Roberts won the $500 Corus Outstanding Jazz Musician Award, for exemplifying “excellence in performance”. He said later he would likely apply it to his jazz trumpet performance studies at the University of Toronto next fall.
Roberts got the week – but not the work – off school, as he performed with the the NACJB, his Osgoode Township High School senior jazz band, a jazz combo, and the Conn-Selmer Centerstage Jazz Band. With MusicFest being in Ottawa this year, he said, “it allowed me to focus a lot more. But also being my last year I learned a lot about how to just enjoy the experience, not think too much about money and scholarships and awards and get caught up in those things, and realize why I'm doing this as I move towards university.”
Pianist Vincent Ribberink, also from Osgoode, won the $2000 Conn-Selmer Centerstage Award, as well as a full tuition scholarship ($1200) for the 2019 JazzWorks summer jazz camp. Ribberink said he was looking forward to attending the JazzWorks camp for a second year, including studying with pianist Jean-Michel Pilc and bassist Dezron Douglas. “It was a wonderful opportunity and the faculty's great. It's going to be a great time.” Like Roberts, Ribberink will be studying jazz performance at the U of T and expected he would use his Centerstage Award there.
Ribberink was also busy at MusicFest – with week-long rehearsals for the Humber National Youth Jazz Combo, as well as adjudicated performances. He played in the NACJB, and with the Osgoode senior jazz band (“It was their first time at Nationals in over a decade, so it was exciting for them to be there”), and in the jazz combo with Roberts (“We had a great time - we were playing some out-there stuff, going a little bit away from the traditional stuff”).
Sam Alexander, the drummer in the NACJB, won the Ludwig Ultimate Canadian Drummer of the Year Award and a Ludwig professional snare drum. Mike Furlong, the drummer with the Nepean All-City Lab Band (NACLB), won the $1,000 Lou Williamson Jazz Drumset Scholarship.
The following Ottawa student bands were awarded a Gold Standard for achieving excellence in all facets of their critically judged performance:
- Earl of March Intermediate Green Jazz Ensemble
- John McCrae Senior Jazz Combo
- Longfields-Davidson Heights Jr. Jazz Band
- Longfields-Davidson Heights Sr. Jazz Band
- Nepean All-City Lab Band
- Nepean All-City Jazz Band
- Vincent Ribberink Quartet
Besides the almost 100 adjudicated student jazz performances and honour ensemble and guest evening concerts in the Bronson Centre Theatre, the National Arts Centre and Knox Presbyterian Church concurrently hosted 131 concert and woodwind bands and orchestras, as well choir, vocal ensembles, and vocal jazz groups.
The 2020 MusicFest Canada Nationals will take place in Calgary.
Read related stories on OttawaJazzScene.ca:
- Hear 96 jazz bands from PEI to Vancouver Island at MusicFest 2019 in Ottawa
- McGill Jazz Orchestra I sets a high bar for big band at MusicFest
- “Canada’s most outstanding young jazz musicians” and Lorne Lofsky create a concert
- Pulling together the Conn-Selmer Centerstage big band – in only five days
- Nanaimo's jazz lineage inspires student musicians