Another high note for Walnut Creek’s Northgate jazz band
By Lou Fancher
Euphoria is ongoing at Northgate High School.
For the fourth consecutive year, the Northgate High School Jazz Band won first place in the High School Big Band Division at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Next Generation Jazz Festival.
In a voice still buzzing with excitement two weeks after winning the proverbial blue ribbon, director Greg Brown says, “Of the top four (third place was a tie), all the bands are fantastic. I have tons of respect for those groups and their directors.”
The Northgate band is one of only two schools in festival history to four-peat, and one of only four schools to win four times in one division since 1971.
First-, second-, and third-place high school bands perform alongside professional headliners at the 60th annual Monterey Jazz Festival in September.
Among the three works the band performed in the competition was “The North Fort” by trombonist/Latin Jazz composer Francisco Torres. Brown says commissioning a new work was pivotal.
Torres has written for big bands, symphonies and Disney, among others, and directs the Grammy-Award winning Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band.
Getting technical, Brown says particular rhythmic patterns that distinguish genuine Latin jazz are tricky to integrate when writing for big bands.
“Francisco’s rhythms fit, so it’s easier to find the swing. The band played with fire, but also refinement.”
Brown attributes repeated success at the festival to performing with clarity, holding tight rhythmically and having obvious fun onstage.
“That’s what gets adjudicators’ attention. The other bands all do each of those things well, but the average of the combination of the three is very high for us.”
But the win didn’t come easy. The 22-member band this year consisted of 16 new players, the largest turnover Brown has seen in years. Selecting the right pieces was essential.
“Francisco listened to me very carefully when I told him about our strengths and weaknesses,” says Brown. “For the other pieces, I listened to a lot — I mean a ton — of music. I listen to see what fits us. It was a stretch, but we made it work.”
Proving that band members were not resting on past laurels, 18-year-old trumpeter Kevin Prough says, “Every year, we can’t take it for granted that we have it in the bag. Often, the difference between first place and last is only 4 percent of the vote average.”
After competing and listening to the other 11 bands that had qualified in their division, Prough says he and the rest of the Northgate band were trying to determine who they thought would win.
Although they felt they’d played with strength, they weren’t sure they could catch top prize. The eventual results were an affirmation of more than simply Northgate’s prowess.
“The festival itself is justification and proof that music is important,” Prough says. “Music teaches us to appreciate someone else, or learn how two people can interpret something differently and neither person is wrong. Without it, I don’t know what my path would have been at Northgate.”
But with music education, Prough plans to attend a soon-to-be-selected college to study aeronautical engineering and minor in music. He’ll take with him the pride of mastering authenticity.
“The Torres tune I loved the most,” he says. “We know the beat, play the style. We’re not just playing something that sounds Latin-y.”
“Music is a method to communicate with something greater than words. I can convey feelings and concepts to other people,” says Prough.
Brown has been teaching for 30 years, 20 of them at Northgate. Planning to continue for three to four more years, he warns that “we seem to be headed in a direction where arts education will be less appreciated.”
Convincing people who’ve not had the experience like Prough and his classmates that arts education is vital to every student is hard, he says.
But fueled by the euphoria of the festival, Brown and his bands will continue to champion the power of jazz.