A room full of teenagers sat in their seats, warming up on saxophones, playing scales on trumpets and trombones, tickling the keys of a piano, assembling a drum kit and tuning a stand-up bass. They chatted and laughed — until rehearsal started. Then it was nothing but focus.
No one expected anything else. The rehearsal was for Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands’ top big band, and these all-star musicians take their music very, very seriously.
“Most of the students, particularly those that end up in the top band, might be the best musician at their school, or the best jazz musician at their school,” director David Mitchell said. “They are just extra-motivated.”
As the group rehearsed a song, one student suggested to Mitchell that it should be played faster. A few heads around the room nodded eagerly in agreement.
“If we play it perfectly at this tempo, then we’ll play it a little faster,” Mitchell said with an encouraging smile. He began to clap his hands in time, and the students readied their instruments.
“One, two — one, two, three, four,” Mitchell counted, and off they went, passing the lively and energetic tune between different instruments.
The Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands program includes three big bands that rehearse year-round, performs concerts throughout the year and even records a CD and a DVD.
David Besonen, 18, is the lead saxophone player for the top band. And as soon as he starts talking about music, it becomes clear that Mitchell’s description of the musicians as “extra-motivated” might be an understatement.
Besonen started playing classical piano at age 5 and picked up saxophone in fifth grade. He started playing jazz in middle school. He has composed award-winning jazz, solo piano and small-ensemble pieces. He has been the All-State Jazz Band lead alto saxophone player for two years, and has played in Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands for six years. He’s also played in the jazz band, variety bands, pit orchestras and the marching band at Eastview High School in Apple Valley.
“Right now, my life is balanced between about 50 percent music and 50 percent school,” he said. He is taking four AP (advanced placement) classes, which require a lot of homework but, he said, are good for his work ethic.
“Music, on the other hand, is a crazy, crazy story,” he said, describing how the previous week was a good reflection of his schedule.
“I had a concerto competition. I had an All-State Jazz concert and an all-day rehearsal for that. I had a jazz festival in Iowa for my school’s jazz band. I had a composition due. And on top of that, I had a bunch of tests and whatnot,” he said.
“It’s a very busy, busy life between the two,” said Besonen, who intends to pursue a career in software development that combines technology and music. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He said that jazz provides a freedom for creating that other types of music don’t have.
“It combines my need to play music and my need to create,” he said. “You can have these really life-changing moments with people around you, and you can push the boundary of what you think you can do, through stuff like improvisation. I think that’s really special, and I think the world would be a better place if more people did that sort of thing.”
Mitchell said he thinks that improvisation is what draws many young musicians to jazz.
“A lot of jazz music consists of soloing, which is basically composing on the spot — playing a solo that’s your very own, something that you create based on a song form,” he said. “It’s a very challenging, but also very rewarding and kind of creative thing to do.”
James Allen, a guitarist and music instructor at Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley and MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, said the unique nature of improvisation makes jazz education important, particularly because jazz isn’t as common as it used to be.
“I think it’s important to actually expose the students to the music, because it’s a great art form,” he said. “I think it’s part of our responsibility as music teachers.”
Beyond learning to improvise, jazz helps young musicians to develop their ability to listen, analyze and work with people, Allen said.
For Jake Baldwin, an alumnus of Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands, learning these skills as a young musician was a large part of what led him to his career as a professional jazz musician in the Twin Cities. Choosing to pursue jazz as a career may seem risky to some, but for Baldwin it was worth it.
“It was really the only thing that inspired me. I didn’t want to sit in a cubicle,” he said. “But if I got to create something every day, that’s kind of what made me feel fulfilled, even at that age.”
The jazz family
That still rings true for many high school jazz musicians. Hannah Hawley hopes to pursue a full-time career in jazz.
The 15-year-old baritone saxophone player sits just a few seats down from Besonen. She also started playing jazz in middle school, and auditioned for Minnesota Youth Jazz Bands for a few years before making the top band. She says she is “100 percent sure” she wants to be a jazz musician.
“It’s my one passion that I know to be true to myself,” Hawley said, talking about her love for the rich history, the structure and the complexity of jazz. She loves practicing and the community that is found in dedicated jazz bands.
“We’re here because we all have this passion about something, and it doesn’t matter where you’re at in your musicianship,” she said. “It’s like you’ve got to stick together, you’re a jazz family.”
When people suggest that she pursue a more practical career, she responds that she’s certain about jazz being her top choice for her future.
“This is fulfilling,” Hawley said. “And if I can provide other people that sense that I get from playing and listening to jazz music or music in general, that would be really cool if I could also give people what Duke Ellington gave to me.”
Lauren Otto is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.