Europe students get jazzed learning an American artform
January 15, 2009
HEIDELBERG, Germany — Jiggs Whigham heard a note he didn’t like, stopped the band and exhorted the players to have the notes clear in their heads before they tried to play them.
The way they were playing, he told them, "It’s kind of like the way I play pool." He struck a comic pose and took a palsied stroke meant as an imitation of a man bad at billiards. "Something, please go in!"
Did the band get mad? It did not. Because when it comes to Whigham, the players all have pretty much the same opinion of him: "He is an absolute genius," said 17-year-old Jared Taylor, a bassist and senior at Patch High School in Stuttgart.
Taylor is one of 35 Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe students attending the 26th annual jazz seminar, a weeklong festival that draws high schoolers from around the continent to practice an American art form that Whigham has spent his life trying to cultivate.
The seminar isn’t so much aimed at producing the next Dizzy Gillespie — who Whigham, by the by, played with — though that would be nice.
"We want them to be better players, but we want them to also go out — and Jiggs says this — to go out and spread the word of jazz to other kids," said Butch Wilcher, a Kaiserslautern middle- and high-school music teacher who is instructing breakout sessions for saxophonists at this year’s seminar.
Whether the students gathered this year will spread the word of jazz, they can’t say. The students themselves say that most of their friends aren’t really into it.
"The thing is, I like playing jazz, but not a whole lot of other people are into jazz," Taylor said. Most of his other friends who are into music are more likely to start a rock band, which is easier to get together.
For a rock band, he said, you just need a few guitars, a drummer, someone to sing.
"It’s hard to find a good trumpet player, a saxophone," and everything else that goes along with making a good jazz band, he said.
This week’s seminar is the one chance in a year — possibly a lifetime — to make that band.
A record number of DODDS-E students (122) auditioned for this year’s seminar, according to Jeff Pellaton, a Ramstein High School music teacher. One reason for the growing interest, he said, is "you cannot duplicate what we’re doing here at your school."
Reasons for that are myriad. Some schools are bigger than others; teachers have varying areas of expertise; students aren’t uniformly interested in the same things.
"Kids don’t find it cool anymore to play instruments," said Reggie Haines, a Vicenza, Italy, senior and tenor sax player, who said there is no jazz band at his school.
"But," he said, "when you do these things right here and you actually sound good as a band, it’s pretty cool."
Whigham, known better to the students and teachers here as Jiggs, is another draw. The 65-year-old trombonist, professor and band leader’s professional jazz career started when he was just 17, and he’s spent a lifetime playing with the likes of Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz and at least 100 other big names.
"I’m just like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in the presence of a celebrity, a star," said Jordan Bush, a 17-year-old Heidelberg senior vocalist who plans on a career as a voice coach.
"These kids [might] go on to be lawyers and engineers, but music will be a part of their fabric," said Pellaton. "And they’ll encourage their children. If nothing else, we’ll build an audience for the next generation."
The band plays a community concert at 7 p.m. on Thursday at the Portland-Forum, Festhallenstrasse 1, Leimen/Heidelberg, Germany.