DODEA students trumpeting the wonders of jazz at annual seminar

The saxophones rehearse during the DODEA-Europe Jazz Seminar at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.


By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 11, 2017

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — With a wave of his hand, Darmon Meader silenced the band and the toe-tapping from the seated musicians in jeans and sneakers.

“Part of the problem is your first articulation feels weak,” he said to the trumpets’ section. “It doesn’t feel like, ‘oh, I love this.’ It feels like, ‘oh, this is annoying.’”

And so it went during Tuesday’s rehearsals at the 34th annual DODEA Europe Jazz Seminar, with the teenage instrumentalists learning that much about playing jazz comes from the heart and not always from the page of sheet music before them.

Even as jazz has long faded from the popular music scene, with jazz legends such as Charlie Parker collecting dust on baby boomers’ old vinyls, the annual jazz seminar strives to keep the sounds of bebop from America’s original art form flowing among military kids overseas.

“If there’s one thing culturally from a music standpoint that we really need to get behind ... it’s going to be jazz,” said Jon Hodge, the seminar’s project officer and a music instructor at AFNORTH International School in the Netherlands.

“I think if you stop teaching it at this level, then you’re going to watch it fade from society, because this is where it begins, this is where you keep that interest in that cultural heritage alive.”

This year, about 120 students from Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Europe auditioned for the seminar’s 32 spots: 24 in the big band and eight in the vocal ensemble.

The students received the selected sheet music for the seminar in late November so they could get familiar with the tunes before squeezing in 18 rehearsals in less than four days starting Sunday.

This year’s repertoire includes the funky “The Chicken;” the rock-jazz tune “Vehicle,” written by James Peterik, who also wrote the Rocky III-theme song “Eye of the Tiger;” the 1949 ballad “My Foolish Heart;” and “Besame Mucho” (“Kiss me a lot”) originally written in 1940 by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velazquez.

Performances were to begin Thursday: at Ramstein High School at 10 a.m. and an evening performance off base, and a Friday performance at 10 a.m. at Kaiserslautern High School.

As students rested their horns or vocal chords between rehearsals Tuesday at the former Nightingale Theater on Ramstein, they spoke about the challenges — and unexpected pure joy — of singing or playing the genre mostly unfamiliar to them.

“It’s really fun,” said Vilseck junior Liam Hartmann, one of two tenors — both from Vilseck — in the jazz vocal ensemble. His favorite tune is “Bye Bye Blues,” his first time singing it and other jazz numbers. “I’ve messed around in my room but this is my first time actually being part of something with jazz.”

Only a few DODEA schools in Europe have a jazz band, seminar organizers said.

Playing jazz so far has been “amazing,” said Rachel Weiland, a junior trumpet player from Bitburg Middle/High School and the only student from her school to audition for the seminar.

“I love the feel of it. It’s very catchy, which can get annoying ... when you’re trying to go to sleep and you have Besame Mucho stuck in your head,” Weiland said.

Lakenheath junior Richard Sheldon, a trombonist participating in his third jazz seminar, said he looks forward to playing in the seminar’s big band.

“The increase in talent coming in here; it gives us a chance to share, spread ideas and just make better music,” he said.

But playing jazz well takes practice because “it’s very intuitive, very off the page,” Sheldon said.

Jazz calls for improvisation, of “making up a whole passage on the spot. They’ll have a cleared space for you (on the sheet music) for you to just go and play whatever,” he said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

Helping the students with the chords, on and off the page, was Meader. In his fourth year as the seminar’s guest clinician, Meader is a world-renowned jazz vocalist, saxophonist, arranger and educator with the vocal ensemble New York Voices.

Meader has an uncanny ability to sing instrumental notes, something he encouraged the kids to practice.

“Sometimes the rhythm can look more complicated on the page,” he said. “If I just said don’t read, just do this — ba ba ba ba-dah — part of it is ... just feeling it in their bodies; then you’re one step closer to making music.”

Volunteers from the U.S. Air Forces in Europe band also helped the instrumentalists on Tuesday while Meader worked with the vocalists, including Staff Sgt. Justin Cockerham, a pianist from Memphis, Tenn.

“Jazz is one of my favorite things, but without a mentor to help me apply it to the instrument, I was lost” until getting to college, he said. “It’s my way of being able to give these kids what I didn’t have.”


Saxophonist Sarah Steers from Stuttgart rests during the DODEA-Europe Jazz Seminar at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. The 32 student musicians from across DODEA-Europe squeezed 18 rehearsals into less than four days.

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