Northgate High jazz band masters 'Next Generation' festival
By Lou Fancher
In music as in the rest of life, everybody loves a winner. And that means the Northgate High School Jazz Band is getting a lot of love.
Taking first place for the third year in a row in the High School Big Band Division at the Next Generation Jazz Festival in April, Director Greg Brown and 24 students swept to the pinnacle from among 13 big bands from across the country.
The three-day festival and competition is presented annually by the Monterey Jazz Festival. Featuring back-to-back performances by middle school through college level instrumental and vocal ensembles nationwide and guest professional artists, the opening night Judges Concert drew more than 1,200 people. A post-show reception raised $20,000 for MJF's education programs. In addition to the concerts, students participated in jams, workshops, master classes and more.
"How did we win again? We commissioned new work that's challenging but fits us well. We shine," said Brown in an interview earlier this month.
Of course, it's more complicated than that, made more daunting by high personnel turnover this year, with a number of key students graduating in 2015.
"While the potential was there, the level of individual players was a step behind where we'd been," Brown said. "They kept their noses to the grindstone and through that hard work, they developed a love of playing together."
The band's energy, he said, was "off the charts" at the festival. "The intangible part is the spirit they pass to the audience that's given back. It's that positive cycle that makes them as much performers as they are musicians."After 19 years at Northgate, Brown can speak of intangibles, but they're built largely on concrete principles. The year after he added a "Band Two" for students entering the program, all of the students qualifying for Band One had been trained by Brown or were accomplished enough to enter the higher level band directly. That consistency and a message Brown delivers that says "Don't shy away from hard work, don't give in to self-doubt" are key elements of the program. Motivators include identifying a student leader, striving to reach his or her level, then surpassing it.
"No one imagines that'll happen, but it does," said Brown.
Natalie Jenkins, 17, plays baritone sax. She said that being surrounded by jazz 24/7 is her favorite part of the festival -- even better than winning first place.
"It's being in the atmosphere: teen musicians and pros. At school, we sit in class for one hour a day, but this is all jazz for three days."
Although Jenkins gives up free time and most weekends to practice or perform, the takeaway is worth it. "I've learned the harder I work, the more rewarding it is."
The rewards this year for lead trumpet player Jonah Moss, 18, were entirely unexpected.
"There was a band from Las Vegas that recognized me from my YouTube videos. They ran up to me as if I were a celebrity: they fangirl-ed me. Basically, they got excited and lost control of themselves."
Perhaps that served to balance the constant critiques Moss said a musician has to greet with an open mind. "It's important not to let it feel like something you did wrong. It's something to work on." Participating in band has taught him to never settle. "If you do well, never stop there," he said.
Along with Jenkins and Moss, Adam Hentschel said "Fantasia En Clave," a Latin Jazz piece by Francisco Torres, was his favorite composition the band played this year. Included on the audition recording submitted in January and performed in their set at the competition, the 17-year-old drummer and percussionist said the work's intertwining parts gave the band its distinctive, defining sound. Jenkins said mastering the articulation and rhythms in a piece with constant textural shifts helped to showcase the band. Moss admired the work's "crazy wild fast speed" that drops magically into a groove for a standout trumpet solo. "I don't play it, but it blows me away."
Notably, while the students -- all seniors graduating in June -- don't take winning for granted, the subject isn't a big topic. Left to share the memories they said they'll never forget, they speak of "killing it" with their opening number at the festival, or trusting each other throughout the school year, or taking it upon themselves individually to "step up."
Brown said band members who graduate in June return in September to perform with the band at the Monterey Jazz Festival. A parent booster club provides vital funds for transportation and other fees.