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Ramstein's Lydia Woodfork, left, and Stuttgart's Olivia Schmitz, the vocal ensemble's altos, belt out a number during rehearsals at the DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Ramstein's Lydia Woodfork, left, and Stuttgart's Olivia Schmitz, the vocal ensemble's altos, belt out a number during rehearsals at the DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Ramstein's Lydia Woodfork, left, and Stuttgart's Olivia Schmitz, the vocal ensemble's altos, belt out a number during rehearsals at the DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Ramstein's Lydia Woodfork, left, and Stuttgart's Olivia Schmitz, the vocal ensemble's altos, belt out a number during rehearsals at the DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Melody Morrise, right, and the rest of the big band trombone section rehearse a number at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Melody Morrise, right, and the rest of the big band trombone section rehearse a number at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Guitarist Garrett Humble of Stuttgart watches conductor Darmon Meader during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Guitarist Garrett Humble of Stuttgart watches conductor Darmon Meader during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Tenor saxophonist Jordan Hodson goes over his sheet music during a rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Tenor saxophonist Jordan Hodson goes over his sheet music during a rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Conductor Darmon Meader goes over a song with the vocalists at DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Listening are Stuttgart's Aubrey Armstrong and Vilseck's Violet Bender, right.
Conductor Darmon Meader goes over a song with the vocalists at DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Listening are Stuttgart's Aubrey Armstrong and Vilseck's Violet Bender, right. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
The vocal ensemble rehearses with the big band during a session at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. From left are Michael Bramhall, John Rowberry, Olivia Schmitz, Lydia Woodfork, Elliot Lavis, Grady Gallagher, Violet Bender and Aubrey Armstrong. Twenty-four musicians and eight vocalists from eight high schools participated in the annual event.
The vocal ensemble rehearses with the big band during a session at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. From left are Michael Bramhall, John Rowberry, Olivia Schmitz, Lydia Woodfork, Elliot Lavis, Grady Gallagher, Violet Bender and Aubrey Armstrong. Twenty-four musicians and eight vocalists from eight high schools participated in the annual event. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Guest conductor Darmon Meader, a singer with the New York Voices, claps out the rhythm during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Guest conductor Darmon Meader, a singer with the New York Voices, claps out the rhythm during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
The DODDEA-Europe jazz big band during a rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Twenty-four musicians and eight vocalists from eight high schools participated in the annual event.
The DODDEA-Europe jazz big band during a rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. Twenty-four musicians and eight vocalists from eight high schools participated in the annual event. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
The jazz vocal ensemble rehearse a song at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. From left are Aubrey Armstrong from Stuttgart, Violet Bender from Vilseck, Ramstein's Grady Gallagher, Elliot Lavis and Lydia Woodfork, Stuttgart's Olivia Schmitz, Lakenheath's John Rowberry and Michael Bramhall from Alconbury.
The jazz vocal ensemble rehearse a song at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. From left are Aubrey Armstrong from Stuttgart, Violet Bender from Vilseck, Ramstein's Grady Gallagher, Elliot Lavis and Lydia Woodfork, Stuttgart's Olivia Schmitz, Lakenheath's John Rowberry and Michael Bramhall from Alconbury. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Alyssa Solomon of Naples makes some adjustments to her sheet music during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Alyssa Solomon of Naples makes some adjustments to her sheet music during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Ramstein's Joe Feliciano concentrates as he slaps out the beat on the upright bass at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Ramstein's Joe Feliciano concentrates as he slaps out the beat on the upright bass at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Jacob Ward of Naples keeps the beat on drums during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.
Jacob Ward of Naples keeps the beat on drums during a big band rehearsal at this year's DODEA-Europe jazz seminar in Ramstein, Germany, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The annual jazz seminar for U.S. military schools in Europe is the one chance many students get to play this quintessentially American music in a group setting.

The seminar has been a proud tradition in Department of Defense Education Activity-Europe for more than 30 years. The 2018 version kicked off Sunday at Ramstein Air Base, where 32 kids from eight DODEA-Europe schools convened at the Nightingale Theater for the first rehearsal.

By Tuesday, the theater was jamming as the band rehearsed Charles Mingus’ foot-stomping “Fables of Faubus,” while, in a separate room, the vocal ensemble scatted the opening notes of “Avalon,” a 1920 song about Avalon, Calif.

Jazz legend and famed trombonist Jiggs Whigham mentored the band for many years, a job that’s been taken on for the past five years by Darmon Meader. A world-renowned jazz vocalist, saxophonist and arranger, he is the musical director of the vocal ensemble New York Voices.

Meader leads the kids through six hours of rehearsals a day, a grueling schedule of horn-blowing and voice practice that culminates in three performances, one each at Ramstein and Kaiserslautern high schools on Thursday and Friday mornings, respectively, and a free community concert Thursday night in Ramstein village.

“It’s exhausting,” Vilseck junior Violet Bender, a soprano in the vocal ensemble, said of rehearsals. “Even though we’re not moving that much, your vocal chords get tired ... because you’re repeating the same things over and over again.”

But “I really love it,” she said. “I hope that I improve as a musician.”

Despite the downsizing of military communities across Europe over the years, there’s never a shortage of applicants for the seminar’s big band and vocal ensembles, said Jon Hodge, the music instructor at AFNORTH High School in the Netherlands and the seminar’s project officer.

“From the time that I started in the late ’80s in Europe as an educator, the school population has probably decreased by 70 percent,” Hodge said, “but our numbers as far as kids submitting auditions hasn’t decreased proportionately.”

This year, about 100 students submitted blind audition tapes, down slightly from last year’s 113, he said. Those submissions were whittled down to eight vocalists and 24 instrumentalists, from the alto saxophone to the piano and drums.

None may have been happier to be there than Richard Sheldon, a senior and trombonist at Lakenheath High School, England, who’s been to jazz seminar every year since he was a freshman.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I love it. The energy is amazing around here. Everybody here loves to play music.”

Sheldon said the seminar is different every year, including the talent.

“Two years ago we had problems with tuning because the harmonies were so intricate, and I think the band wasn’t as good as they are now,” he said.

“This year, the rhythms section is absolutely fantastic,” he added, referring to the piano, drums and guitar.

Jovianne Tabraham of Ramstein and Alyssa Solomon of Naples, Italy, take turns on the keyboard.

Tabraham, a senior who’s been playing piano for nine years, said jazz is harder to play than many other forms of music. “There’s always the syncopated rhythms as well as really colorful chords that you have to get your fingers under,” she said, “especially if the parts aren’t written and they just give you a bunch of chords to play.”

Meader encourages the kids “to step away from the notes on the page and just try to explore the music by ear and (one’s) knowledge of chord changes and styles.”

“We want the best of both worlds: We want them to be reading it (the notes), but we want them to be really feeling it as well,” he said.

Callum Funk, a senior alto saxophonist from Stuttgart High School, welcomes the freedom that comes with playing jazz. He’s now got the right instrument for the task. “I played clarinet, and I didn’t like it,” he said of middle school band. “The saxophone was similar enough that I felt I could transition to it. It’s like the stereotypical jazzy instrument, so you got to go for it.”

The band will play eight songs at the concert, culminating in the lone combined band and vocal ensemble performance of “Avalon.”

Some songs hail from the big band era, such as the Count Basie Orchestra’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” and others have more Latin and Afro-Cuban roots, such as Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.”

Hodge hopes the students end the week on a high note, leaving with “a passion for music,” particularly for jazz.

“Jazz is something that’s uniquely American,” he said. “As Americans, we should promote and be experts and actively do what we can to promote this art form.”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com Twitter: @stripesktown

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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