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Not one, but two local high school bands to play Detroit Jazz Fest

Rockford, Northview musicians psyched up for ‘amazing’ festival

When Trevor Jacobs played the Detroit Jazz Festival with the Rockford Jazz Band last year, he wasn’t sure what to expect. Now he knows: expect an awesome experience.

“I was a little nervous for it,” said Trevor, a senior trumpeter. “Once you get the crowd’s energy, then you feel that in your performance and you just go off. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Max Gage on keyboard and Nathan Emerson on bass were part of a Northview jazz ensemble playing at a recent picnic for Kent ISD employees (photo by Dianne Carroll Burdick)

He will join his high school jazz band again this Saturday, Aug. 31, to play the 40th annual festival in downtown Detroit, one of America’s premier jazz fests. They’ll be joined by the Northview High School Jazz Band, giving Kent County two of just six high school jazz bands in the state to play at the four-day festival.

The Rockford and Northview bands will be featured in a Saturday morning showcase overlooking the Detroit River, along with Sterling Heights High School. The student musicians will also get to hear some of the legendary pros performing at the festival, including Freda Payne, Stanley Clarke, Pat Metheny and Grand Rapids native Xavier Davis.

“I know it’s going to be incredible,” said Will MacIntosh, a Rockford junior and guitarist.

Count on it, said Northview sax player Lexi Martin. This will be her third year playing the event.

“It’s such a great festival,” said Lexi, a senior. “You get to play for so many people who are there just to listen to jazz, then you get to listen to all these incredible bands … It’s one of the best experiences ever.”

A small ensemble from the Northview Jazz Band entertained at a recent picnic for Kent ISD employees; from left, Elijah Cosby, Nathan Emerson, Lexi Martin, director Greg Wells and Nathan Zahm (photo by Dianne Carroll Burdick)

Getting in the Swing 

The Northview jazz ensemble has played the Detroit jazz fest since the event was opened to high school bands in the 1980s — and once played as festival ambassadors in Switzerland — but this year is just the second time for the growing Rockford jazz band. They’ll number about two dozen players, including several graduates who will return for the occasion. The two bands have played joint concerts with guest artists in recent years.

The Rockford Jazz Band is a dedicated group that meets on Sunday evenings at North Rockford Middle School, where their director, Cullen McCarthy, teaches band. This is his 20th year as a Rockford band director, including about a dozen with the jazz band.

The band has grown in size and skill over time. It won the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition at Michigan State University two years ago, and has partnered with the MSU jazz program to put on concerts with the Northview band.  The band qualified for Detroit by getting a high rating at the state jazz festival, then submitting a recording for review.

“I’m overjoyed. So honored,” McCarthy said of the band’s selection. “It’s a big deal, and it’s a great opportunity for the kids – one, to play, but then to be immersed in that jazz culture.”

It will be the first time playing at the festival for Rockford junior Leah Kramer.

“I’m pretty excited,” Leah said, adding, “It’s just really cool to be part of a band that is starting to become more well-known.”

Rockford Jazz Band members, from left, Leah Kramer, Will MacIntosh and Trevor Jacobs are fired up to play the Detroit Jazz Festival

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press 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. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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