Originally published in Earshot Jazz August 2011
Inside Avast! Recording Studio A, a rectangular room with dark wood rafters, curtained walls, and a concrete floor covered with rugs, a high school jazz band director stands on a podium to the left. Student trombone and trumpet players sit in two parallel rows of chairs to the right, separated by low walls of sound absorbing material. Saxophonists sit in a row of chairs straight ahead. Through a glass sliding door in the corner is the drummer. A baby grand piano parks to the left. An upright bass perches on the right. A soloist stands in the middle of everyone. Microphones poise in front of every one of the twenty instruments. Each musician wears a set of headphones. Additional microphones capture sound from various zones within the room.
Through a large glass window, engineer Johnny Mendoza leans over an expanse of knobs, buttons, meters and sliders. “Take one,” his voice announces over the headphones. The recording console is top of the line and rare, a Trident A-Range thirty-six channel board from 1975, number three of only thirteen ever built. Consoles from London’s Trident Studios are famous for the wholesome sound on the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” They were used on more than 300 other gold and platinum recordings at Cherokee studios in Los Angeles. Stuart Hallerman unearthed this unique machine in Lynnwood and promptly installed it in the studio in 2005.
Not only did these lucky students get to use top of the line recording equipment, this scene was repeated eleven times during one week in March this year. Twelve high school jazz bands had three hours apiece to record a track for the KPLU School of Jazz – Volume 7.
And the students were not alone. Each band was mentored by a local professional jazz musician. The recording session followed four rehearsals with the mentor. Cornish College also hosted a School of Jazz Day packed with workshops and jam sessions that mixed the students with seasoned faculty.
Back in 2005, Boeing was looking for an opportunity to fund an educational program. Beverly James, underwriting sales manager at KPLU, pitched the idea of linking local jazz mentors with students to raise funds for school band programs. School of Jazz was born. Now in its seventh year, the project matched forty mentors with twenty one schools to record over eight hours of music in eighty six tracks on seven CDs to raise over sixty thousand dollars for school music programs. Brenda Goldstein-Young and Florangela Davila have recently taken over the producer role from Beverly James. Brenda’s enthusiasm is evident in her dream to have a “School of Jazz on every continent.”
The program won the Service to America Award from the National Association of Broadcasters Education Foundation and the My Source Innovation in Education Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It even inspired a similar project in Iowa at Kirkland Community College’s radio station KCCK called Corridor Jazz, now in its fourth year.
But the biggest impact is with local musicians and students. Here’s what the mentors had to say:
Josh Cook: “I really enjoyed how professional they all were during the recording. I don't think any of them had been in a studio before and they handled it perfectly, nailed our chart, and played inventive solos.”
Jim Sisko: “I love seeing the kids at work in the studio – nervous, but confident at the same time.”
Ken French: “It was very satisfying when I would give someone a suggestion, they would do it, and then see the positive expressions on their faces afterward as a result their immediate musical improvement, both as an individual musician and as a collective group.”
Tom Varner: “I had a great time with the Squalicum High School band. Leader Kay Reilly does a great job with the students and is really dedicated – ouch, they rehearse four days a week at 6:30 AM!”
Chad McCullough: “One time I offered to hang around after rehearsal and answer any questions that anyone might have. It ended up being almost an hour of great questions about music in college and being a professional musician. I walked away feeling like I'd really helped steer some people in a positive direction.”
David Marriott: “I was able to build on a relationship that started with a student at the UW Jazz Workshop, who recommended me to his band director. We played together on this year's recording – the fun being that a student was now being put in the same position as me, a peer. Seeing that shift, and seeing the student ‘own’ that shift, is special.”
Jay Thomas: “I'm always on the lookout for young players who are serious about jazz and may be in it for the long haul. My overall goal is to get it to FEEL good. The excitement of putting on the headphones and recording is a blast.”
Maria Joyner: “By having their own song on the CD they get to leave their mark on the archived history of the Northwest's jazz heritage. That is something they will take with them for the rest of their lives and be proud of.”
KPLU School of Jazz Volume 7 kicks off with Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” played by Mercer Island High School featuring trumpet soloist Jay Thomas. The meticulous arrangement by Japanese pianist Shuhei Mizuno sets the familiar melody above a catchy ostinato doubled in the bass and piano with reharmonized chords. A gospel tag breaks out at the end with hand claps on the backbeats. Shouts from the band bring home a raspy blues plunger solo from Jay.
Clarence Acox leads the Seattle JazzED band through a simple and elegant bossa version of the swing show tune “Crazy Rhythm.” The drums and bass lock in to a steady beat with a delicate blend of flute and saxophones stating the melody.
Mount Vernon High School delivers a straight ahead blues shuffle on Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’.” It can be hard to not rush the quarter notes of the melody but the band stays solid in the pocket. Tenor saxophonist Josh Cook shares the solo space with some of the students.
The 12/8 bass figure on “Invitation” by the Edmonds-Woodway High School propels a misty mix of clarinets and muted trombone chords. After trumpeter Jim Sisco states the melody, the groove switches to a Count Basie inspired swing.
New Orleans chicken neck funk underpins “Fowl Play” by Squalicum High School and French horn player Tom Varner. The tuba and cowbell give a dancing parade feel underneath the solos.
Jackson High School flies through “I’ve Got Rhythm” with trombonist David Marriott. The drummer sets up the band well during the shout chorus.
Bellevue High School rocks the shout chorus on “Blues for Stephanie” but starts at the opposite end of the dynamic range with a bass solo. A flute solo boldly using flatted fifths shows that these students are making the critical improvisatory connection between harmony and melody. On top of Ken French’s drumming, the scoops, bends, and fall-offs in the section playing demonstrate that these students are also linking their instruments to vocal phrasing.
“Walkin’ Tiptoe” by North Thurston High School recalls the Neal Hefti chart “Cute” with brushes on the snare drum. Written parts for the rhythm section under the improvised trumpet solo by Andy Omdahl add an interesting counterpoint.
Trumpeter Thomas Marriott is featured on his original tune “Human Spirit” played by Mountlake Terrace High School. The bassist handles the even eighth-note feel nimbly and an alto soloist lays maturely back on the beat.
Shorewood High School plays the Spanish tinged “Everything in its Right Place” in the unusual time signature of 10/4. After Chad McCullough’s trumpet solo, an unexpected ending makes a shift from instruments to voices.
Kentridge High School hits a Basie stride on “Woody’s Whistle,” complete with guitar strumming on every beat and tasty piano fills. Drummer Maria Joyner’s solid pulse carries through the stop time breaks during the trumpet solos.
Stadium High School winds up the disk with the Cuban salsa of Arturo Sandoval’s “Sandunga.” Rapid fire rhythms send trombonist Gary Shutes into a dual with a tenor saxophonist.
The CD cover art features a vibrant acrylic painting by Nancy Peacock. Married to bassist Gary Peacock for thirteen years, she began sketching jazz musicians in 1982 while on tour with her husband. For three years in the early 1990’s she sketched musicians every night of the week at Jazz Alley. Many of her works now adorn the offices of KPLU.
The KPLU School of Jazz program provides a vital and successful community-based model of business, education, artists, and media coming together. With national emphasis on standardized education, state budget cuts hitting education, and Seattle’s own school board eliminating funding of new materials for elementary school music programs, we need synergistic projects like this to strengthen American culture for our children – the future.