RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — About an hour into rehearsal Tuesday morning, Jiggs Whigham tells the teenagers on stage to “put your horns down and stand up, please.”
The world-renowned jazz trombonist and music professor tells them to extend and hold their arms out to their sides. At first, the task seems easy, Whigham says.
“Anyone can play four bars in a row without making a mistake — that’s no great shakes,” he tells the students participating in the DODDS-Europe Honor Jazz Seminar. But “playing a whole arrangement” with its many notes and complexity is much more difficult and requires undivided attention, he said.
“I don’t want you thinking about your girlfriend, the pizza, what you ate for breakfast,” he said. “It’s about the music. It’s only about the music.”
The rare chance to shut out everything but the music and sing and play with their peers is what makes the jazz seminar special for the 34 students who auditioned and were selected for a seat in the band or a turn at the microphone in the week-long program.
About 170 students applied for the seminar, now in its 30th year, said Hope Matthews, DODDS-Europe fine arts coordinator.
“It is the joy of making music together and at a level that these kids don’t get in their regular high school experiences,” said Rebecca Brashier, the seminar’s vocal ensemble director.
“You don’t have to be a jazz musician to come here,” said Jeff Pellaton, the seminar’s music director. “You have to be a good musician. If you can play your horn, you can fit in.”
Aaron Gaudette, 15, a Ramstein High School sophomore who plays the piano and keyboard, said the seminar is “amazing.”
“We basically get a week just to jam with people and be with people who respect the same thing that we do,” he said.
Vicenza (Italy) High School junior Veronica Borja, one of two sopranos to earn a spot in the seminar’s small vocal ensemble, and AFNORTH (Netherlands) junior Madeleine Booth, one of two altos chosen, strived Tuesday to collectively harmonize notes in such Big Band jazz classics as “Old Devil Moon” and “The Nearness of You.”
In jazz, “there’s all kind of funky chords” and dissonance, Booth said.
“Jazz is hard,” Borja said.
This year’s musical lineup, with original Stan Kenton arrangements, challenges even the group’s returnees, such as Mason Price, a Ramstein High School senior who started playing the trumpet in fifth grade.
“There are some high notes on the trumpet part,” he said. “I’m not going to say I can hit all of them all of the time.”
The students don’t come to rehearsal cold. They can download the music online and get help in advance from the DODDS-Europe teachers who instruct break-out sessions at the seminar.
Four days of intense rehearsal culminate with a free performance Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Landstuhl Stadthalle.
“What I tell people (is), close your eyes and you have no idea those are teenagers,” Pellaton said.
Whigham, who played trombone in the Glenn Miller Orchestra right out of high school, demands near perfection from his young apprentices.
“I keep telling them that good won’t get it,” he said. “We’re not looking for average. We want to excel.”
Now 69, Whigham has led the DODDS-Europe Jazz Seminar for 29 years.
“I got to be here,” he said. “I love teaching. I love playing. I love music. Whatever I can do to exemplify that, in any way, I try to; as a player, as a teacher, as a band leader. Working with talented and serious people is very rewarding.”
Whigham says he receives emails from former seminar students who have long since graduated.
“ ‘You said something or did this.’ ‘That week of honors big band workshop changed my life,’ ” he said some of the notes say.
“So how can you say no?” he said.
Some former seminar students, such as 19-year-old Paulee Brown, are forging a future in music. The Wiesbaden High School graduate is now a freshman at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Brown, who’s playing drums in the seminar jazz band this year as a guest and mentor, said the experience helped him learn how to “listen and be mindful of the rest of the band. In order for the whole band to sound good, you have to know your part.”
“Jiggs,” he said, “he motivates you to be the best that you can be.”