DODEA students get their groove on at annual jazz seminar
By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 17, 2018
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.”