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Kids got that swing
Today’s jazz greats mentor tomorrow’s musicians

How do you make a trumpet sing? A clarinet cry? A snare drum sizzle? Practice, baby, practice.

A little one–on–one wisdom from a professional helps, too.

For the past seven years, the Savannah Music Festival has hosted Swing Central Jazz, a three–day workshop and competition for high school jazz bands around the country. Seasoned musicians are paired with teenage counterparts to impart technique, pass on advice, and most of all, encourage kids to keep on playing.

SMF Associate Artistic Director and jazz pianist Marcus Roberts oversees a team of 20 clinicians for the event, including Grammy–nominated bassist/composer John Clayton and drummer/jazz royal Jason Marsalis. Playing jazz requires a certain capriciousness of style, an intuitive knack that Roberts believes must be passed on by someone who cares enough to teach it.

“Every jazz musician has a mentor, someone they looked up to who is responsible for welcoming them into this community,” he says in You Got to Swing, a 2010 film documenting SCJ. Roberts mentored Marsalis before inviting him to join his trio, and trumpeter Marcus Printup also credits Roberts with jumpstarting his career.

In the same film, Clayton recounts his own experience with his mentor, legendary bassist Ray Brown. “He told me, ‘I’m doing it for you because someone did it for me, and you’re going to do it for someone else.’”

The Swing Central Jazz clinicians continue this legacy of bringing up young musicians. But first, those musicians have to get here.

Out of a pool of 56 entrants, 12 bands were selected to participate in this year’s competition. Some are returning contenders, like Los Angeles–area Agoura High School Studio Jazz Band and the Hume Fogg Silver Jazz Band from Nashville, Tenn. Two of the chosen bands come from the same school, Illinois’ Champaign Central High. Since judging was based solely on unlabeled submissions, Champaign Central’s double entry speaks volumes about the sophistication of its program.

“Some of these high school bands sound better than any college — even some professional bands,” rhapsodizes Ricardo Ochoa, SMF’s Director of Education. “There’s a high level of professionalism.”

This year all ears will be tuned once again to Ft. Lauderdale’s Dillard Center for the Arts Jazz Ensemble, who garnered Swing Central’s first prize in 2010 and 2011 and is looking to make it a trifecta. Dillard director Christopher Dorsey (seen in You Got to Swing beseeching for “groove, groove and more groove”) also led his musicians to the top spot at the Essentially Ellington Festival in New York last year, putting a jazz riff on the pop phrase “in it to win it.” However, Dorsey says it’s really just about the music.

“We’re just comin’ to swing and have a good time. That’s our secret,” he laughs during a phone interview. “If we don’t win, as long as we’ve played ourselves out, it’s all good.”

Ochoa explains that these are no ordinary high school jazz bands half–heartedly eking out “My Funny Valentine” in between gym class and lunch: To achieve such a degree of musical prowess, these groups rehearse daily for hours, honing their skills and often attracting the kind of booster club attention usually reserved for the football team.

They’ve been chosen to come to Savannah to swing, but that don’t mean a thing if they ain’t got the cash. It can cost upwards of $1,400 per student to come to Savannah from out of state, leading to frantic fundraising in the last few months. Some are selling candy, holding pasta dinners, and of course, performing benefit concerts.

The bands are promoting themselves in their communities for financial support as well as a prize: New to Swing Central this year is the Online Combo Competition, featuring a small rhythm section and a few soloists from each ensemble. Each combo uploaded their own arrangement of Miles Davis’ “Dig,” plus a blues tune of their choice, including original compositions penned by students.

While three clinicians will decide on the awards for original arrangement, soloing, rhythm section and individual playing, friends and fans can vote online at for their favorite to win the People’s Choice Award, to be announced at the SCJ welcoming session Wednesday, March 28.

From there the students will congregate by instrument for workshops shepherded by SCJ’s Associate Director Jim Ketch, a University of North Carolina music professor and trumpeter who often mixes up trios and quartets of brass and reeds per Roberts’ “collective” philosophy of education. Jazz tunes revolve around a structure that passes the element of improvisation between soloists, a challenge for high schoolers who haven’t built up the chops to let loose.

“Can you imagine the exhilaration and fear when you’re called up to play a blues solo with the Marcus Roberts Trio?” asks Ketch. “But more often than not, they rise to occasion.”

Ketch often uses the words “spark” and “epiphany” when talking about jazz improvisation and works with his charges to find that sweet spot in the scale: “It’s like you have one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the clutch,” he describes. “Then all of the sudden you take your foot off the clutch and that’s when the magic happens.”

He says Swing Central Jazz gives young musicians the opportunity to hit the gas, building that unconscious repository of experience and muscle memory that allows soaring spontaneity. Ketch reminds that all jazz musicians develop in the same way, a three–part process coined by legendary instrumentalist Clark Terry: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

“First, you imitate the great players, then you being to assimilate what they do,” says Ketch. “The final step is to become an innovator.”

After the small sessions, the bands will come back together for more finessing with the pros on Thursday, March 29, revolving around the High School Band Showcase on Rousakis Plaza on River Street. Friday morning is the big competition at the  Lucas Theatre. Winners will be announced that afternoon.

The student musicians will also attend shows headlined by some of their mentors, including a Louis Armstrong retrospective with trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and friends as well as the always “swingin and wailin’” SCJ finale.

Though the competition may be fierce, Roberts underscores the importance of comradery in jazz, saying the biggest lesson is the give–and–take of the music itself:

“One thing you learn from playing jazz is the whole concept of being able to make room for someone else to achieve something—without feeling like that’s interfering with your ability to make your statement.”

2012 Swing Central Jazz High School Band Showcase

Where: Rousakis Plaza, River Street

When: Noon–6 p.m. March 29

The Competition

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: 9 a.m. March 30