[Dixielandjazz] Younger generation and jazz

Tim Eldred julepjerk at surewest.net
Tue Apr 13 20:47:35 PDT 2004

>From the Los Angeles Times, Sunday, April 4
Teenagers Totally Jazzed
Placentia Musicians Are on a Mission at O.C. Competition
By Kevin Pang
Times Staff Writer

April 4, 2004

Under a searing flood of lights, Dan Kaneyuki approaches the microphone with his tenor saxophone, stage center and alone.

He knows this is it. The weight of the competition rests on these next 140 measures of music. One flub could mean the difference between first place and runner-up. Or worse.

The overflowing audience looks on.

Dan closes his eyes, exhales deeply and hits the first note of "Moonlight in Vermont": a C-sharp.

Away from glistening gym floors where white sneakers thunder up and down the court, away from the grassy fields being groomed for spring sports, is a high school competition of a different sort. 

Few people outside music education have heard of the Irvine Jazz Festival. Even fewer know the event celebrated its 10th anniversary March 27. This year, 65 middle and high school groups came together to celebrate all things bebop and blues. Students such as Dan, a member of the Jazz One Ensemble at El Dorado High School in Placentia, come to do what they love best: listen and play jazz.

They also come to win.

At the last three Irvine festivals, El Dorado and its rival, Hamilton High School Academy of Music in Los Angeles, have finished in the top two spots.

In 2001, Hamilton beat El Dorado. The next year, El Dorado beat Hamilton. Last year, Hamilton defeated El Dorado, 194 to 193. For the only time that school year, El Dorado tasted defeat. 

This year's showdown was the only time the two schools would face each other. 

El Dorado was dead-set on winning. 


It's all about practice. Two days earlier, back in El Dorado's band room, the group is rehearsing "Battle of the Bop Brothers." 

The tune features tenor saxophonists Dan Kaneyuki and Ryan Kelly in the musical equivalent of the 100-meter dash. There are so many notes, played at such a furious speed, it has taken the two since January to learn the music.

Somewhere in the flurry of notes, one of the two messes up.

"Something happen?" asks band director Richard Watson.

Ryan answers: "I slipped a little." 

"Well, don't slip." 

Unlike Hamilton, a magnet school that attracts music students from a large area, El Dorado draws only on its local area for talent. But Watson, nearing 30 years at the school, has turned this modest music program into a regional powerhouse. His marching band traveled to Sydney to perform at the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Olympic Games.

The school's two jazz ensembles - Jazz Two is a steppingstone to Jazz One - are the most competitive groups. More than 150 students vie for 34 spots, 17 in each band. With that drive comes a winning tradition. Trophies and other awards are squeezed onto shelves lining all four walls of the band room. Plaques are stacked four and five deep. 

Dan, like many of Watson's students, takes music seriously. He teaches private saxophone lessons to middle school students. He wants to study music in college and play professionally.

"I was a pretty shy player," he says. "Mr. Watson . gave me more confidence." 

Friends say he has nerves of steel.

Said Eric Uldall, a 16-year-old trumpet player: "Dan's an introvert until he plays. That's how he speaks." 

In rehearsal, Dan prepares for his ballad feature, "Moonlight in Vermont" by John Blackburn. It's the song that could swing the competition. It's the tune he says he's most comfortable with.

He begins playing. The sound is a smoky, breathy tone that floats over the room. His eyes clench and his knees buckle slightly when he hits those high notes. 


The day before the festival, the band comes to rehearsal knowing there's no time to waste. When the second-period bell rings at 9 a.m., their instruments are tuned, their sheet music assembled on the stands.

Watson sits down and says, "High Maintenance." It's their opening song, an upbeat, flag-waving swing-shuffle that shows they mean business.

Thirty measures into it, concern washes over Watson's face. The drums and bass aren't in sync. The trombones are making rhythmic mistakes.

"These are not good mistakes, these are focus mistakes. We've rehearsed this," Watson says. "Counting, counting, counting."

The band makes it to the end of "High Maintenance." 

"Well that ain't knocking my socks off. Does it yours?" Watson asks his band. "Does it say, 'Hey we're great, here we are?' We may have to go to Plan B and use a different opener."

He thumbs through his music folder, makes the band play a couple of tunes and settles, for the time being, on Plan B.

After the students leave, Watson evaluates in his office. "That was not our best rehearsal. They sounded a little unfocused. It's not usually how they prepare." 

Watson remembers one year earlier, when the band's wavering concentration proved the difference in the one-point loss. 

"It was a little disappointing," he says. "They weren't locked in.. It was a good performance, but they didn't play as well as they could."


It's competition day. At Irvine High School, more than 1,000 students and directors are wearing tuxes, bowties and sports jackets. 

Many schools come for the thrill of performing for a large, appreciative crowd. Band directors come to hobnob and network. Everyone comes to receive constructive criticism.

El Dorado's Jazz Two Ensemble plays solidly during its 1:30 p.m. performance. Many of the Jazz One group are there to cheer them on. 

By 4 p.m., the performances are running late and the remaining bands get pushed back 30 minutes. Because of last year's finish, El Dorado and Hamilton will play last. It's been a long day - several band members had taken the SAT exam that morning.

"Seriously, I'm ready," says an agitated Aaron Thomas, the 16-year-old trumpet player wearing the Joe Cool shades. "I wanna play."

Finally at 6:20 p.m., after the band warms up, Watson gets the cue. 

As the band members walk toward the stage, Travis Drake, the 17-year-old baritone saxophone player, steps into the role of motivational speaker. "Tonight's the night," he tells them. "I want to hear cannons firing in the distance."

On the other side of the curtains, all 300-plus seats are filled. The crowd spills onto the stairway on both sides. This was the main event: El Dorado and Hamilton, back to back.

"Everybody ready?" Watson asks. The band nods.

The curtains swing open. "Uh one, two, uh one two three four!" A walking bass line kicks off "High Maintenance" - Watson was comfortable with the piece after all. 

He walks offstage and leaves the band on cruise control. He's listening for balance, intonation and details that were lacking in rehearsal the day before. This night, the drums and bass are in sync. The trombones are rhythmically spot on. The band crescendos with each brass hit. Bup, bup, bup, bup, BAM!

The band nails "High Maintenance."

They then play the Thelonious Monk composition "Well You Still Needn't," which features some crisp, lyrical playing by the trumpet section.

Now comes Dan's "Moonlight in Vermont."

He stands alone in front. The lights gleam off his horn. Dan closes his eyes and with that C-sharp, begins speaking through his saxophone.

His eyes open to rapturous applause. He smiles and Watson pats him on the back.

Then comes the closer. 

Dan returns to the front of the stage with Ryan Kelly, music stands in hand. And thus begins the "Battle of the Bop Brothers."

For five minutes, their fingers flick at breakneck speed. They trade improvised solos, trying to outdo each other. The brass hits are tight and powerful, the rhythm section burning. Feet are tapping in the audience.

Then, suddenly, the rest of the band drops out. 

Dan and Ryan have the stage to themselves. Ryan plays a phrase. Dan plays it back. One plays over the other. Back and forth it goes. When they are ready, Dan and Ryan signal each other and hold their last note together. 

Watson cues. The band hits the climactic final note. The lead trumpet is screaming, cymbals crashing everywhere.

The crowd leaps to its feet. It's the only time all day a band will receive a standing ovation.

Outside, Travis Drake adopts an I-told-you-so stance about the band's performance. "Cannon fire," he says. "Cannon fire."


While a judge meets with the players in another room to critique El Dorado's performance, Hamilton takes the stage. Many band members already have the look of veteran jazz performers with their crisp, three-piece suits. 

Hamilton presents an impressive set that displays an array of musical styles. They open with a swing chart that shows off the trombone section, and close with a samba with all the percussive bells and whistles.

When El Dorado returns for the awards ceremony, the band is bunched at the bottom of the staircase, excited and antsy. They know the scores are close.

Then comes the first surprise of the night. 

El Dorado's Jazz Two Ensemble takes two awards: best trumpet section and first place in the Advanced Division. 

After what seems like forever, the winners of the Heavy Division - the grouping El Dorado's Jazz One competed in - are announced.

Fourth and third place: Not Hamilton, not El Dorado.

Second place: The El Dorado players squeeze their fists. Their facial expressions say, "Please don't say our names. Please don't say our names."

"In second place, with a score of 188 points . Hamilton High School Academy of Music."

The Jazz One band collectively exhales. Some mouth a "Yes!" 

But before it's official, several other awards are announced, including El Dorado winning most outstanding saxophone section.

Then comes perhaps the night's second-biggest award: most outstanding soloist. More than 100 students in the Heavy Division are in the running.

"Most outstanding soloist, on tenor sax . "

The players turn their heads to Dan.

"From El Dorado High School, Dan Kaneyuki."


Then comes the icing.

"First place in the Heavy Division, with a score of 196 points . El Dorado High School Jazz One Ensemble!"

Band members hoot and holler, hug each other. Audience members rise to their feet. Watson is among the crowd, clapping wildly. He won't go on stage to take any credit.

"It's all about giving them an opportunity to shine," he says.

Dan and Ryan, who stole the show with "Battle of the Bop Brothers," accept the plaque on the band's behalf.

Outside the theater, there are hugs and handshakes all around.

"I feel like I got a piece of my dignity back," Travis says. "One point last year, erased."

As the crowd disperses, one student from a competing school walks up to Dan and taps him on the shoulder. 

"Thanks for making my night worthwhile."

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