Minnesota Youth Jazz Groups Provide ‘Jazz Family’ for Talented Students

A room filled with teenagers sitting in their seats, warming up on the saxophone, playing scales on trumpets and trombones, tickling the keys of a piano, assembling drums and tuning a double bass. They chatted and laughed – until the rehearsal began. Then it was nothing more than concentration.

No one expected anything else. The rehearsal was for the best big band in the Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands, and these star musicians take their music very, very seriously.

“Most students, especially those who end up in the best band, could be the best musician in their school or the best jazz musician in their school,” principal David Mitchell said. “They are just extra-motivated.”

While the group was rehearsing a song, a student suggested that Mitchell play it faster. A few heads in the room nodded eagerly in agreement.

“If we play it perfectly at that tempo then we’ll play it a little faster,” Mitchell said with an encouraging smile. He started clapping his hands in time, and the students prepared their instruments.

“One, two – one, two, three, four,” Mitchell counted, and they walked off, passing the crisp, energetic air between different instruments.

The Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands program features three major orchestras that rehearse year-round, give concerts year-round, and even record CDs and DVDs.

David Besonen, 18, is the lead saxophonist of the best group. And as soon as he starts talking about music, it becomes clear that Mitchell’s description of musicians as “extra-motivated” might be an understatement.

Besonen started playing classical piano at the age of 5 and learned the saxophone in the fifth grade. He started playing jazz in college. He has composed award-winning pieces of jazz, solo piano and small ensembles. He was the principal alto saxophonist of the All-State Jazz Band for two years and played in the Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands for six years. He has also performed in a jazz band, variety bands, pit bands, and the Eastview High School Marching Band in Apple Valley.

“Right now my life is balanced between about 50% music and 50% school,” he said. He takes four AP (Advanced Placement) courses, which require a lot of homework but, he says, are good for his work ethic.

“Music, on the other hand, is a crazy, crazy story,” he said, describing how the previous week reflected his schedule well.

“I had a concerto competition. I had an All-State Jazz concert and an all-day rehearsal for it. I organized a jazz festival in Iowa for my school’s jazz band. I had a due composition. And on top of that, I had a bunch of tests and so on, ”he said.

“It’s a very busy life in between,” said Besonen, who intends to pursue a career in software development that combines technology and music. “But I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Creative license

He said that jazz offers a creative freedom that other types of music don’t.

“It combines my need to play music and my need to create,” he said. “You can experience these really life changing moments with the people around you, and you can push the boundaries of what you think you can do, through things like improvising. I think it’s really special, and I think the world would be a better place if more people did that sort of thing.

Mitchell said he thinks improvisation is what attracts many young musicians to jazz.

“A lot of jazz music is playing solo, which is basically composing on the spot – playing a solo of your own, something that you create from some form of song,” he said. -he declares. “It’s a very stimulating task, but also a very rewarding and creative one to do. “

James Allen, guitarist and music teacher at the Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley and the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, said the unique nature of improvisation makes jazz education important, especially because jazz is not as common as it used to be.

“I think it’s important to expose students to music because it’s a great art form,” he said. “I think it’s part of our responsibility as music teachers.

Beyond learning to improvise, jazz helps young musicians develop their ability to listen, analyze and work with people, Allen said.

For Jake Baldwin, alumnus of the Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands, learning these skills as a young musician was in large part what led him to his career as a professional jazz musician in the Twin Cities. Choosing to pursue a career in jazz may seem risky to some, but for Baldwin it was worth it.

“It’s really the only thing that inspired me. I didn’t want to sit in a booth, ”he said. “But if I had to create something every day, that’s kind of what made me feel fulfilled, even at this age.”

The jazz family

This still rings true for many high school jazz musicians. Hannah Hawley hopes to pursue a full-time career in jazz.

The 15-year-old baritone saxophonist is seated a few seats away from Besonen. She also started playing jazz in college and auditioned for the Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands for a few years before becoming the best band. She says she is “100% sure” that she wants to be a jazz musician.

“It’s my one passion that I know to be true to myself,” said Hawley, speaking of his love for the rich history, structure and complexity of jazz. She enjoys practicing and the community that is found in dedicated jazz bands.

“We’re here because we all have this passion for something, and it doesn’t matter where you are in your musical art,” she said. “It’s like you have to stay together, you’re a jazz family.”

When people suggest that she pursue a more practical career, she replies that she is certain that jazz is her first choice for her future.

“It’s gratifying,” Hawley said. “And if I can give other people the feeling that I get playing and listening to jazz music or music in general, it would be really cool if I could give people what Duke Ellington has to me too. given.”

Lauren Otto is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

Ada J. Kenney