DODEA jazz seminar finds its groove, looks to expand
January 16, 2019
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — They may be teenagers, but the military students participating in DODEA’s annual jazz seminar this week are also old souls who say they listen to Buddy Rich and the Count Basie Orchestra in their free time.
“I listen to jazz when I’m having trouble with something,” said Alex Sims, a Ramstein senior who plays the drums. “It always helps me calm down.”
Sims and the other 28 Department of Defense Education Activity-Europe students selected for this year’s jazz band and vocal ensemble said they relish the opportunity to play and sing nothing but jazz.
They showed up Monday for their first practice under renowned guest conductor Darmon Meader. By Thursday, it was curtains-up, with the first of three performances over two days scheduled, including an evening performance at Ramstein city hall.
“It’s a lot to process, a lot to prepare,” said Sims, while tapping his drumsticks on his legs during a rehearsal break Tuesday at Kaiserslautern Middle School. “We’re trying our best to get ready.”
America’s homegrown music has long been eclipsed in popularity by rock, hip-hop, pop and other forms of music, but the jazz tradition marches on in DODEA-Europe.
This year marked the 36th annual jazz seminar. DODEA is not only committed to continuing the program, but wants to expand it, organizers said.
Next year, DODEA is considering adding a workshop to the seminar and increasing the number of participants to around 50, said Ann Engels, the seminar’s project officer for DODEA and a fine arts instructional specialist. The idea is to drum up more interest in jazz in Europe and give students from smaller schools a chance to improve their jazz skills.
This year nearly half of the 21 instrumentalists in the seminar’s jazz band are from Ramstein and seven are from Stuttgart, two of the larger schools in DODEA-Europe which offer jazz band as an elective.
For DODEA students already in jazz, the seminar is an opportunity to fine tune their music skills and play at a higher level.
“Especially last year, I think my note planning, my chord theory, all the music theory that I’ve been taught, it just increased my playing” tremendously, said Garrett Humble, 16, a senior guitarist and drummer from Stuttgart.
Many like Humble in this year’s group are returnees but there are also a few newcomers.
Vicenza sophomore Jordan Merritt landed one of two tenor parts in the vocal ensemble on a whim.
“It was more of a dare from a friend,” he said. “He always said I had a good voice.”
On Tuesday, he and the other seven vocalists were singing about chickens, from a Meader arrangement: “There ain’t nobody here but us chickens … tomorrow is a busy day, we have things to do, we have eggs to lay.”
The lyrics sounded nothing like the problems Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars croon about, two of the contemporary artists Merritt favors. But recently Merritt says he’s been listening to Frank Sinatra. “The jazz is sucking me into it,” he said.
The students have been immersed in jazz for months, having their sheet music in hand well before Christmas break to prepare.
Eight-hour rehearsals began Monday with Meader, an internationally known jazz vocalist, saxophonist and arranger, who’s also the musical director of the vocal ensemble New York Voices. Meader divides his time between the band and vocal ensemble, with DODEA music instructors and Air Force band members leading smaller breakout sessions.
“It’s fun to see what you can do in just these set few days,” said Keona Kaneshiro, a Stuttgart senior who’s playing the vibraphone, a “metal-looking xylophone thing that everyone doesn’t know quite what to call.”
Kaneshiro, who counts the Count Basie Orchestra as her favorite band, says she most enjoys playing Cole Porter’s mellow “You’d be so nice to come home to” at this year’s seminar.
Both Sims and Humble favor the more upbeat Kris Berg composition “Chicks Dig It.”
“It’s a very funky song and I can really let loose because I’m a funky drummer,” Sims said, sans tongue and cheek.