Ask John Whitlock about his grade-point average and he'll proudly tell you that there isn't a blemish on his report card. His classmates, a group that includes real estate agents, tax accountants, software engineers and small business owners, could tell you the same.
Term after term, Whitlock and the others made the trip every Wednesday night to Century College in White Bear Lake for a class called Music 1017, which really was a fancy name for the two-hour midweek music jam and rehearsal for the Century College Jazz Ensemble. And term after term, Whitlock and the others wound up with A's on their transcripts for simply participating in the group that was formed 30 years ago as an outlet for talented musicians who had a love for big band.
"We did get grades back then," said Whitlock, a trumpet player. "A few of us even got requests to join Phi Beta Kappa because we got straight A's."
While Whitlock no longer has to take the "class" for college credit, the jazz ensemble continues to earn high honors in the community for its quality music and for the nationally and internationally known acts it brings to the Century College Jazz Festival each January.
This year's headliner is Tom (Bones) Malone, the versatile musician who wears the purple suit and plays in the horn section on the "Late Show with David Letterman." He was also music director for the "Saturday Night Live" band from 1975 to 1985.
Malone, who wrote the chart for the first "Blues Brothers" skit featuring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, along with other scores, will join the Century cast for a few numbers, then play favorites such as "Sweet Home Chicago," "Night in Tunisia" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" solo.
"This is a special treat," said Larry Neumann, the Century Jazz Ensemble's director of 12 years. "This is an opportunity to share the stage with musicians who are tops."
Founded in 1981 by John Zdechlik, when Century was known as Lakewood Community College, the ensemble has established itself as one of the Twin Cities musical treasures. In addition to its annual jazz festival, the 17-member group plays three other concerts a year at Century and appears at local festivals, clubs and community events.
The ensemble will present a free concert at 2 p.m. March 13 at the Central Park Amphitheater in Woodbury. It's also played at the Minnesota Music Educators convention, and in 2006 was invited on a two-week tour in Asia by the U.S.-China Cultural and Education Foundation. The ensemble has four CDs to its credit. The latest -- "CJE Live!" -- was released last year.
The Century Jazz Ensemble is a tight-knit group whose members range in age from 40 to 70. Whitlock is one of five who have been in the group since its inception; the others are long-term members. With its repertoire of more than 550 songs -- many of them compositions written by group members -- the band always has something fresh to play, and it's never hard to get perfect attendance, whether it's for a gig or weekly practice, said tenor sax player Terry Peffer.
"This is the love of jazz and a hobby," he said. "Some people have bowling night. We have big band night. Everybody is really dedicated at rehearsal."
A free wine, cheese and dessert reception featuring Pooch's Playhouse takes place in the West Campus Theatre lobby one hour before each performance.
Proceeds from the 22nd annual Century College Jazz Festival will go to the Century College Foundation, which provides scholarships to Century students. Over the past 21 years, the event has raised more than $800,000 to provide aid to hundreds of students.
"That is what makes this one of the best community events of the year," said Nick Maras, the foundation's executive director.
Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824