Education meets improvisation

Education meets improvisation

Beavercreek’s unique weekend of jazz returns

By Benjamin Smith

Photo: Spyro Gyra; Photo: Brian Friedman/B-Freed Photography

Fact: the three toughest things on the planet are diamonds, silicon carbide and jazz.

Obviously that’s an exaggeration, but even distortions reflect some truth. Jazz is challenging to learn, challenging to play and occasionally challenging to enjoy or even comprehend. Perhaps its complexity is one of the reasons why the art form is occasionally – and tragically – overlooked in an age of instant gratification and condensed communication. As Jay Beckenstein, saxophonist and founder of legendary jazz fusion band Spyro Gyra put it, “Jazz is hard work. Hard, hard work. It’s as simple as that.”

It’s also hard to organize and promote a jazz festival. But since 2001, the Beavercreek Music Parents Association has presented the wildly successful Weekend of Jazz (WOJ) festival every March in the Beavercreek High School Alumni Auditorium. Stemming from the vision of Douglas McCullough, director of bands at Beavercreek High School, the event has bloomed into a cultural institution and a source of local pride. Its purpose: to introduce students in the Miami Valley to different forms of jazz, and to sharpen their musical skills.

Or, as summarized by the event’s tagline, it’s “Where the Future of Jazz meets the Legends of Jazz.”

“I have loved music since I was a kid,” McCullough said. “I have had the pleasure of meeting and performing with a number of jazz greats. I wanted to make this same experience possible for Beavercreek students, and at the same time bring elite jazz musicians to all of Beavercreek.”

In addition, the band director acknowledges the Weekend of Jazz has helped the Dayton area reclaim some of its former musical glory.

“All the jazz greats made Dayton a regular stop on their tours,” McCullough said. “It has been fun to help put the Dayton area back on the jazz map.”

This year’s event begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 6, with Beavercreek Band Night – an evening of free performances by jazz bands from Ankeney Middle School, Jacoby Coy Middle School and Beavercreek High School. Following each show, a jazz professional will provide students with constructive critiques and encouragement.

On Friday night, March 7, the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, which first played the WOJ in 2001, will storm the stage at 8 p.m. Dan Archibald, the WOJ’s promoter, is stoked.

“Doug and I had a strong desire to bring the legendary Count Basie Orchestra back,” Archibald said. “They will play Count Basie’s music the way it is meant to be played. The audience can expect to see a true and authentic big band jazz performance.”

Scotty Barnhart, trumpet player and director of the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra, is equally enthused: “People will see the most explosive band in jazz, period,” he said. “Basie put together a thing that has not been equaled, and we get our biggest response from high school and college kids. When they hear a good jazz band perform live for the first time, it’s like they’re seeing the Beatles or something. [Jazz] opens their minds and they want more.”

“Snooky Young, one of the best trumpet players of his time, came from Dayton,” said Barnhart, who is quick to praise the Gem City’s jazz legacy. Barnhart also hopes students who see the Orchestra’s show will understand a career in music is possible.

“The first thing kids will learn by watching the orchestra is music is fun, and the most serious musicians have the most fun,” he said. “Secondly, they’ll see if you study music and are dedicated to it, it will change your life. Jazz music has made me a world citizen; I’ve been around the world countless times and have friends in so many different countries. And third, they’ll see that you can make a living, and get paid, to be a musician.”

Continuing in this spirit of learning, the WOJ will resume Saturday morning, March 8, with the School Jazz Band Festival, during which jazz bands from across Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky will perform in exhibition. Each band has about half an hour to play. During the shows, jazz clinicians will critique the playing, making notes about what the band can improve on. Then, each band will practice in another room for another half an hour to implement the critiques, guided by one of the clinicians.

“It’s all about getting the students the chance to get on the stage and show what they are capable of and take some chances,” Archibald said. “Jazz is pretty intimidating! People have to step out and improvise a little bit. The WOJ environment encourages students to do just that.”

Afterwards, an 8 p.m. show by Spyro Grya will cap the festival.

“Spyro Gyra first played the WOJ back 2005,” Archibald said. “At intermission, Jay Beckenstein got on the microphone and told the audience that while he and his fellow musicians come from pretty affluent communities – and often perform in affluent communities – those places don’t always have programs like the WOJ. ‘Don’t take this for granted,’ he said. ‘Your parents bring real jazz artists to perform for you. Have us back anytime you want.’”

Archibald added, “When you see Spyro Gyra live it changes your life.”

Possible transformations aside, attendees will certainly witness a unique gig. The 2014 Weekend of Jazz is one of a few shows in which Spyro Gyra will play its second album, Morning Dance, in its entirety, in honor of the album’s 35th anniversary.

“We are a band that tends to look forward or at least live in the present,” Beckenstein said. “We don’t want to be a tribute band to ourselves. When the whole idea [of playing Morning Dance] came up, there was some resistance within the band and within myself. But I started to listen to the album again and fell in love with it again. Now I’m all jazzed up about performing it live. It is a really quirky album and really positive. When you are in any field of the arts for a long time, you eventually tend to make more sophisticated, but darker, art – all the irony of your world builds up. That’s part of growing older and growing up. But in revisiting Morning Dance, it’s like, ‘Wow! I was really happy when I was 25!’ The joy really comes through.”

Giving the audience a sense of progress and evolution, Spyro Gyra plans to bookend its performance with songs from its latest album, 2013’s The Rhinebeck Sessions.

“The show will be, ‘That was then, and this is now,’” Beckenstein said. “Morning Dance was a kitchen sink record – it had French horns on it and three percussionists! The new album is forced minimalism.”

Although everyone involved with this year’s event has forged their own personal path toward art and appreciation, there is one thing they all can agree on.

“Having family and school support is truly a powerful influence on young musicians,” said WOJ director Tim Sakulich. “One of the most important things we can do as parents is to help our kids develop the skills to be successful as adults. Music can play an important role in that. There is such positive reinforcement to a student’s self-esteem and confidence when they know their performance is appreciated by their family, their school and the community. And that translates into lifelong benefits, whether or not that student ultimately chooses a career in music itself.”

“Parents have a responsibility to really give their children the support they need; they need to see family in the audience,” Barnhart added. “My mother was a band mother. A lot of parents may not understand jazz, and even some band directors don’t understand jazz. But they need to pay attention to what their kids and students want to play. If they want to play jazz, let them play jazz! You never know what that creativity will lead to.”

Jay Beckenstein echoed the importance of music programs: “Music, and art and theater: these parts of an education have been so undervalued lately. Music programs enhance kids’ brains. Today, I saw a talking head on TV complaining kids aren’t being raised to become creative business leaders anymore, and I wanted to say, ‘There you go! You have cut music! No wonder kids aren’t becoming creative business leaders.’”

Clearly, Beavercreek is ahead of the curve when it comes to valuing music education.

“There is almost no way to put into words how important the support of our parent group is,” McCullough said. “The school fully supports our program, but they can not financially support all the things we want to provide for our students. This is where the Beavercreek Music Parents Association steps up to the plate, every time. Whenever I have come up with a wild dream like the Weekend of Jazz, our parents have never batted an eye. They just ask, ‘If it is best for kids, how do we make it happen?’ You always hear about all the music programs that are shrinking in size and interest. Here in Beavercreek, we have over 1,000 kids playing in band in grades 6-12, and we have kids and parents fully excited about the importance of a music education and how it enhances their entire school experience.”

Jazz is tough, sure, but maybe that’s one of the reasons why it endures.

“If you introduce 100 kids to jazz and just one of them walks away thinking it’s cool,” Beckenstein concluded, “then you have given them a gift that will last a lifetime.”

The Beavercreek Music Parents Association presents the 2014 Weekend of Jazz Thursday, March 6, through Saturday, March 8, at the Beavercreek High School Alumni Auditorium, 2660 Dayton-Xenia Rd., Beavercreek. Beavercreek Band Night is Thursday, March 6, at 7 p.m.; admission is free. The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra performs Friday, March 7, at 8 p.m. The School Jazz Band Festival is Saturday, March 8, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Spyro Gyra performs Saturday as well, at 8 p.m. For tickets to see the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra and Spyro Gyra, please visit weekendofjazz.org. For more information, please call 937.490.9010.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Benjamin Smith at BenjaminSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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