DODDS jazz seminar takes student musicians to a new level

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 15, 2014

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Kris-Tyan Streeter doesn’t recall precisely how long he’s played the trombone.

“I think this is my fourth year. I think I’ve been doing it for three, but it might be two. I’m not sure,” he said.

The Rota High School senior ended up playing it because his small school band needed more trombone players. “Taught myself,” he said.

Streeter is glad he did. He’s one of five trombonists selected to participate in this week’s Department of Defense Dependents’ Schools-Europe annual jazz seminar.

More than 100 students in DODDS-Europe auditioned for the 33 spots in the program’s big band and small vocal ensemble, said DODDS-Europe fine arts coordinator Hope Matthews.

“Jazz is the premier American art form” she said. “It’s part of a well-rounded musical repertoire.”

The students began rehearsing Sunday for a series of three performances in the Kaiserslautern area beginning Thursday evening.

The music has “been challenging,” Alex Mench, 15, a Kaiserslautern High School sophomore trombonist, said Tuesday. “But I can feel myself getting it. You can see that it’s getting better. You can hear the improvements that everyone is making.”

Many, like Mench, come from larger schools in DODDS-Europe with an actual jazz band or jazz seminar class, such as Kaiserslautern, Ramstein and Patch high schools. But a few are like Streeter, from schools with no jazz programs or very small ones.

“We lost all our saxophones. (We have) one other trombone, a trumpet; we’ve got a tuba,” Streeter said, describing Rota’s “zero-hour” jazz class, which meets an hour before school starts. The auditions for the DODDS-Europe jazz seminar are blind, so the committee that makes the final selections doesn’t know from which schools the students come, Matthews said.

“This is an opportunity for kids that don’t get to play jazz so much to have an opportunity to come and participate in this,” she said. For students who take jazz at school, “this takes them to a new level,” Matthews said. “They get to experience things that they would not do in a normal classroom.”

Ross Cowart, 17, a senior from Ramstein High School, was playing the bass Tuesday and taking an occasional turn on the bongos during his third year participating in jazz seminar.

“It’s just a great experience,” he said, “being able to get all the best jazz kids from across Europe and put something together like this. Everyone always comes out with something; they’re always a better player.”

Cowart, who attributes his love of music to listening to his mother’s jazz records as a 5-year-old, picked up the bass in middle school because the band needed a bass player and because “basses get a lot of gigs; there’s not too many of us.”

Cowart and the rest of the big band rehearsed on the stage inside the old Nightingale Theater on Ramstein, where the U.S. Air Forces in Europe band also practices, running through compositions such as “Hay Burner” by Sammy Nestico and “Crystal Silence” by Chick Corea.

“We are slowly moving towards perfection,” Darmon Meader, the seminar’s guest conductor, said at one point.

Meader is the newest addition to the seminar, now in its 31st year. He replaced legendary trombonist Jiggs Whigham, who led the big band portion for 29 years and will play the trombone as a guest soloist when the band performs Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”

The seminar’s organizers wanted to take this year’s event “in a new direction,” Matthews said. “We wanted to highlight the vocal ensemble more.”

Meader, a saxophonist and vocalist from New York who sings with New York Voices, an internationally known jazz quartet, is directing both the instrumentalists and vocalists.

He spent Tuesday afternoon leading the vocal ensemble through jazz numbers he arranged, including Ellington’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me” and Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”

Alconbury High School junior Amy Young said she auditioned for one of eight spots in the vocal ensemble because she “always heard that jazz (seminar) is elite, that it’s a really good program.”

As a soprano, she’s found jazz more challenging than anything she’s sung. “Choral music can be more operatic. The jazz, it’s more just like feeling the music and blending it together,” she said.

The experience so far is nothing like typical choir class at school, where some students take the class for an easy grade, she said. “I like this because we’re all serious about it and we really want to get the notes down and the music working well.”

“The kids who are putting in the time to practice and work on their music skills at this age, they get it,” Meader said. “They understand the idea of discipline and hard work, that those things are going to get you somewhere.”

While not everyone will go on to be professional musicians, “the point is those skills, they help build up your sense of community, your sense of teamwork, your sense of discipline. It carries over into whatever you do.”

Eric Measells, a music teacher at Schweinfurt High School and this year’s program director for the seminar, says he hopes students “just develop a love of music, a love of jazz and want to continue.”

“The kids walk away inspired to do just about anything,” he said. “They walk into the hotel (after rehearsals) smiling and still singing.”


The jazz big band rehearses a song at the DODDS-Europe Honor Jazz Seminar at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. Thirty-three students from high schools across Europe participated in the annual event that features the band and a vocal ensemble.


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