Kurt Vonnegut once defined jazz as “safe sex of the highest order." If he is correct, Friday and Saturday's Santa Cruz Jazz Festival which features the best young jazz students in the state might give school administrators reason to rethink cutting student music programs.
For two days, more than 65 school bands and vocal groups from California and parts of Nevada will perform at Cabrillo College’s Visual & Performing Arts Complex.
“It’s like a three-ring circus at any time,” says Steve Wilson, a Cabrillo music instructor and 20-year member of the 26-year old Jazz Fest’s board of directors. With bands bused in with “all their entourages,” Wilson expects a crowd of over 2,000 to fill the new complex’s halls both days.
Each band plays for a panel of judges who score them, offering a master class clinic and a recording of the performance. The bands with the top ratings play Saturday night to a full house at Cabrillo’s Crocker Theater.
“It’s not a competition though some people make it one,” Wilson says.
The opportunity to receive music lesson scholarships, feedback via the master class clinic, and to play to a full audience at the Crocker Theater on Saturday night are reasons the Jazz Fest has a waitlist for participants each year, Wilson says.
Wilson studied improv with Ray Brown at Cabrillo and has been involved in the Jazz Fest for 20 years, as well as the Kuumbwa Jazz Center since its inception in the 70’s. He is also an accomplished classical trombonist who played with the Santa Cruz Symphony.
“After playing Mahler or Tchaikovsky I would have to run out to a nightclub and sit in with some friends playing jazz," he says. "It's limiting; the best you can do is play Tchaikovsky the way the conductor wants you to."
He enjoys the balance of sophistication, structure, and self expression in jazz.
“When you play jazz you get to play it your way,” adding that the complexities "let you reinvent a piece every time you pick up your instrument.”
While subgenres of jazz warrant varying levels of improvisation and structure, Wilson says some bands go too far with structure due to their inability to communicate through the music.
“Professionals don’t have to talk about it, they just do it,” Wilson says. Improvising, he says, is like a conversation – "He'll put a period at the end of his sentence that tells me he’s done."
But, he added, it's a conversation that requires a lot of practice.
Third year Jazz Fest participant Barney Greer, 17, who plays in a fantastic local band called Barney and the Dinosaurs, agrees that jazz offers more challenge to a musician than most other genres.
“Pop is repetitive; I would almost say it’s all the same,” Greer says.
Greer describes his first year at Jazz Fest as pivotal, where he met Jazz Festival director Ray Brown, “the most amazing person ever,” and changed his education planning to fit around jazz classes at Cabrillo.
“My dad has been throwing music at me since I was 2, ranging from Balkan beats to 50’s doo-wop,” Greer says. While jazz appeals to some youth, Greer said it does not get the attention it should from youth. “The deterrent is the allure of electrical instruments and becoming a rock star,” he says.
“Barney has paid his dues,” Wilson says. “It takes thousands of hours to get to that point, and that’s the part people forget.”
After “wiggling the stick on a violin” in the third grade, Greer went through a brief phase on the trombone and has played the saxophone for over five years. Since then he started his band, put on a benefit concert for an earthquake relief charity for Haiti at Kuumbwa, and is now playing in the competitive Kuumbwa Honors Jazz Band.
And as for the Jazz Fest, Greer enjoys performing for a crowd and being inspired by other musicians.
“The amount of talented musicians that come here is just amazing.”
Both love the fact that jazz is always different, even if they are playing the same song.
“It’s never the same thing twice,” Wilson says.
To buy tickets or learn more about Santa Cruz Jazz Fest, go to www.scjf.org. To hear Barney Greer and other local young talents play, check out the Kuumbwa Jazz Honor Band performance on March 29th at Kuumbwa Jazz Center.