Northgate High jazz band wins big at Monterey fest
By Lou Fancher
Making music at Northgate High School pays off in unprecedented ways. In March, at the 48th Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, the school’s 26-member Jazz Band I scooped up the top honor in the High School Big Band Division. The band’s fifth blue ribbon win set a first-ever consecutive-year record in the festival’s 47-year history.
That’s the most wins in a row by any school, in any division, by the way.
The three-day Next Gen event on March 11 included an opening night Judges Concert with professional musicians; clinics led by festival judges; and more than 100 performances by college and high school big bands, vocal ensembles and combos. Following a finals competition, awards were given in 18 divisions that include soloists and scholarship winners. Audiences of more than 1,500 people at the recently renovated Monterey Conference Center expanded in 2018 through local TV broadcasts and live web streaming on YouTube that allowed for nearly 16,000 views.
But before — and beyond — the heady spin of five first place wins in a row, music pays daily, longterm dividends.
Take as examples Cameron Wanser, a 17-year-old tenor saxophone, clarinet and flute player, and Stephanie Guerrero, 17, who plays timbales, a Cuban percussion instrument with two single headed, different size drums made of steel or on rare occasions, wood.
Wanser attributes his involvement in music with realizing improvisation is woven into all of life. “Even right now as I talk, I’m trying to find words in the moment. Music has made me less shy. I’m bolder when I talk to people at festivals and concerts,” he says.
As a member of jazz band, he says he feels more connected to the school community but also to his emotions. “You can solo angry and fast, or soulful and sad. It helps me feel good when I play. The groove of the band is definitely fun too.”
Guerrrero, as one off the band’s four female musicians, says, “We’re in the minority, but it doesn’t feel like we’re separate. We all have our parts and there’s not a place for discrimination. That’s great, yeah?”
Inclusion and a solo she performed at last year’s Next Gen festival have boosted her confidence.
“It made me not afraid to assert myself to get what I want.”
For her senior project, Guerrero, who plans to study nursing at Cal State Northridge, is examining gender roles in the medical field.
“I’ve gone to a neurologist office and asked other John Muir medical professionals about shadowing them. I wouldn’t have felt confident without (director) Mr. (Greg) Brown having pushed us to our limits. I can see him supporting me when I do other things.”
Wanser’s senior project is an April 14 “Hot Latin Jazz” concert at the Campbell Theater in downtown Martinez. Featuring the band and special guest Javier Cabanillas of Grammy Award-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra, the show sold out in two days. Adding a second show was considered, but due to time constraints set by the theater, Wanser had to say no.
“The trumpet players chops would be ruined: there’s vibration when they play high notes that wears them out. There wouldn’t be rest time between two shows.”
Wanser says the all-Latin music — Cabanillas will join the band for some of the six-song set — highlights the energy of the star performer and the band. “Cabanillas will lock us in. He plays the congas with passion, confidence and projection.”
Northgate music director Greg Brown says students in Jazz Band I this year are particularly adept at sight-reading and outstanding as improvisers. The ensemble benefits from many of them being multi-instrumentalists, which allows for exploration of a wider variety of music. Their finals performance offered “Belly Roll” by Quincy Jones (arranged by Quincy Jones and Sammy Nestico) and “Gate Sixty-Eight” by Francisco Torres. A quick survey of the audition material and repertoire played to earn a spot in the finals swings from an early 1960’s-based tune, Bill Chase’s ”Camel Walk” to the classic “Gallop’s Gallop” by Thelonious Monk (arranged by John Beasley) to Torres’ fifth Northgate commission. “We have played one of these commissioned works at each of our winning performances over the past five years,” Brown says.
Beyond the expressivity and friendships students forge in the band, leadership emerges as music’s gift to students. Wanser is learning the managerial ropes as he arranges a concert at a professional venue, with equipment, musicians schedules, publicity and other responsibilities. Guerrero says even the festival’s highlight — winning — held opportunity to demonstrate maturity.
“When we found out who got second, we all stayed quiet, then applauded them strongly. We respected them. We had decided ahead of time as a group to cheer for them. We kept our excitement until they announced us. Then we were screaming and hugging and ran up to the stage to hug Mr. Brown.”