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‘It’s Incredible, the Opportunities We Get’

How to Play with Music Greats? Talent, Discipline, Passion

Jazz at Byron Center High School has always been about swinging hard and playing big, and hitting the smooth, cool notes just right. So too at Northview High.

But it’s not about earning a grade or even competing for band members. The three full jazz ensembles — Jazz Orchestra, Jazz Band and Jazz Lab — are known to join the likes of some of the biggest names in the industry onstage.

The Northview High School Jazz Band, along with Byron Center, rank as top high school jazz programs in the state.

“We try to give students an experience that’s truly authentic to the music,” said Byron Center Director Marc Townley. “Instead of just trying to reach for a high school standard, why not stand side-by-side with the greatest musicians in the world?”

Townley isn’t overstating things or tooting his own horn. The orchestra will join Freddy Cole, the brother of Nat King Cole, on the Van Singel Fine Arts Center stage at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2 to play the bluesy number “Jelly Jelly” with the 85-year-old musician.

“Freddy is a beautiful, beautiful cat,” Townley said. “He is the history of music. To play with him is a special treat.”

Byron Center’s orchestra is also headed to Swing Central Festival, March 29-31 in Savannah, Georgia, qualifying for the fourth year in a row. And members will return to the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition May 11-13, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, as one of 15 high schools in the nation that qualified — and the only one in Michigan. The only other school in the state ever to qualify was Interlochen Center for the Arts, in 1998 and 2003.

Those experiences will make for an exciting second semester for young musicians, but the first was pretty snazzy too.

Students worked with Sammy Miller and the Congregation during a jazz clinic in September. They played with jazz guitarist Russell Malone with the Michigan State University Jazz Orchestra in October. And in December, they performed with saxophonist John Wojciechowski, and joined jazz pianist Aaron Diehl with vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant onstage and for a workshop. In February, the jazz band and jazz orchestra finished first in their class, and jazz lab had a strong finish, at the Central Michigan University Jazz Festival.

All dressed up and ready to play, the Byron Center Jazz Orchestra has an exciting semester ahead
All dressed up and ready to play, the Byron Center Jazz Orchestra has an exciting semester ahead
Acclaimed clarinetist Anat Cohen recently played with the Northview High Jazz Band (photo by Ellie Haveman)
Acclaimed clarinetist Anat Cohen recently played with the Northview High Jazz Band (photo by Ellie Haveman)

‘Incredible Opportunities’

Said Byron Centerjunior Sam Winter, who has played upright bass in the jazz band and orchestra since freshman year, “It’s been really awesome to be able to immerse myself in jazz, and have all these people I spend time listening to come in and actually work with us.”

One of his favorite experiences was playing with bassist Christian McBride two years ago: “It was really cool to be able to hear one of my heroes.”

Junior Stephanie Bueche, who’s in the orchestra for the second year, has enjoyed working with big names as well.

“It has been a real learning experience for me,” Stephanie said. “Once you start working with these big musicians they seem like normal people, and you just play music with them and it’s great.

“It’s incredible, the opportunities we get.”

“For everything we do, we try to play music on the highest levels possible,” Townley said. “So we compare ourselves with the Aaron Diehls, and Cecile and Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Really, we want to be onstage playing the music on the highest level possible and contributing to the music.”

Reaching for that standard means strong competition and festival performances fall in place, he added. “The guest artists from Day One have been the focus. That’s the foundation.”

Director Greg Wells said it’s important to expose students to professional players (photo by Ellie Haveman)
Director Greg Wells said it’s important to expose students to professional players (photo by Ellie Haveman)

Keeping a Strong Tradition

The 21 members of the Northview High Jazz Band also dig playing with first-rate pros. Two years ago many of them joined with trumpeter Jon Faddis in a concert with the MSU Be-Bop Spartans jazz band. Earlier this month they performed with acclaimed clarinetist and saxophonist Anat Cohen, in concert with two MSU jazz groups and the Rockford High School Jazz Band.

Northview pianist Hamin Gil called Cohen’s example “inspiring.”

“Hearing a professional of that level (play) live, it made me fully realize what I could do if I just try,” said Hamin, a junior.

Exposure to top pro players is part of what keeps Northview’s decades-old jazz band tradition strong, said Director Greg Wells.

“They need to be exposed to the highest level whenever possible,” said Wells, now in his seventh year. “Part of it is seeing that’s where we strive to be.”

Wells inherited the Northview band program from Max Colley Jr., who built a jazz juggernaut in his 40 years at the high school. His jazz groups repeatedly earned top marks at state festivals, made eight tours of Europe and produced many professional players and band directors, including Wells and Townley.

Wells said Colley’s leadership and “endless professionalism” created not only a strong music program, but support from the school system and community. Wells teaches about 200 music students including three other bands, backed by a “phenomenal” Band Boosters group.

Last year, the jazz band joined Byron Center as one of 12 bands nationwide participating in the Swing Central festival in Savannah. This school year, besides playing with Cohen, the ensemble performed at the Detroit Jazz Festival over Labor Day, and last weekend at the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival. They will play at the Western Michigan University Invitational Jazz Festival March 11, and in April will take part in a clinic with professional woodwind artist Chris Vadala.
Key to the program’s continued success is “fostering a culture and an attitude,” Wells said.

“With jazz, it’s such a communal activity that there has to be that family environment and that collective drive to get better,” said Wells, a trumpeter who plays professionally. “With that comes the motivation to practice, learn your parts, go listen. Once students get passionate about it, their peers also see that (and) that passion emanates throughout the entire program.”

Northview Senior Bryant George solos on the alto sax in concert rehearsal

Don’t Be the Weak Link

Northview’s musicians say they’re well aware of their school’s jazz tradition – and the high expectations that come with it.

Senior Brendan Smith, a trombonist who plans to major in music education in college, said he had to “push myself to be a better player” from the time he joined as a freshman.

“The band had this really strong legacy,” Brendan said after a recent concert rehearsal. “I didn’t quite understand how great a player you needed to be to keep up to par. It hit me like a brick wall pretty fast.”

He said he was helped by learning from two older trombonists and the wide range of styles taught by Wells,

The band’s great reputation was the main reason trumpeter Evan Davis joined. “Everybody looks up to the jazz band,” the junior said. “You want to match the level of the band. You don’t want to be the weak link.”

He admires pros like Chet Baker, while Hamin, the pianist, praises Oscar Peterson. Classically trained since he was 3, he said the jazz band opened up a new way of making music.

“I didn’t know you could make up notes that weren’t on the sheet (music) until I got into high school,” Hamin said. “Jazz provides a way you can put your own style on the music that you’re given.”

Wells sees generations of Northview musicians inspiring those who follow them, constantly learning as they go.

“The more you get into this music, you realize it’s endless,” he said. “There’s always more to learn, always more to go after. It’s not an ‘I’ve made it.’ It’s ‘We’re on this journey, let’s do this together.'”


Essentially Ellington

Western Invitational Jazz Festival

Byron Center Jazz Orchestra – Essentially Ellington Recordings

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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