Excerpted from an article by Peter Alexander in the Coastal Journal:

“I was in Boston on Jan. 31 where I attended the Berklee High School Jazz Festival. The festival, organized by the Berklee College of Music, was celebrating its 47th year and drew well over 1,000 young jazz musicians representing 130 high schools from 14 states as far away as Florida and Illinois, including an impressive 18 schools from Maine. I was determined to see as many Maine high school jazz bands as I could. Unfortunately, a few schools, including Brewer and Bangor, were not able to attend, stymied by the weather, and there were scheduling conflicts in the incredibly dense program (a dozen groups performing during each time slot). Nonetheless, I was richly rewarded.

The first group I heard was the Fryeburg Academy Big Band under the direction of Mike Sakash. This band, featuring a full 13-piece horn section, drums, guitar, bass and piano, was REALLY good, especially in ensemble. The horns were crisp and punchy as they executed some heavily syncopated lines while staying so solidly in the groove that my feet started tapping.

The South Portland High School Jazz Combo, under the direction of Craig Skeffington, was next on my agenda. This was a smaller group, with just four horns, drums, bass, guitar and piano. These talented young musicians executed some very challenging passages with all four horns playing lines in perfect unison: not one sloppy entrance, not one missed note.

South Portland HS Jazz Combo, from top left: Alex Quinn, Owen Doane, Kevan Merrow, Cole Lemelin, Julia Stanton, Ansel Hoecker, Anna Foster, Thomas Costin and Vincent Amoroso.

At competitions like this the bands are tempted to focus on wowing the judges with technical prowess, and there was plenty of that in evidence. But there was also some exceptionally fine musicianship. After impressing the standing room only audience with their first number the South Portland group launched into a slower piece that featured many rich and moving harmonic cadences. Hats off to Mr. Skeffington for bringing out the best in these kids!

Next, I heard the “Upper School Jazz Combo” from Waynfleet School under the direction of Ray Morrow. Again, I was blown away. This group played with great sensitivity and superb execution, with some fine work on guitar and keyboards. They positively ripped through their final number. It’s worth noting that all these bands had a fairly even distribution of parts between boys and girls. I was particularly impressed that up to this point all the bass players were girls—and they were really good. I was also impressed that the judges often by-passed soloists in presenting their “judges’ choice” award to one of the players in each group, favoring instead one of the musicians who provided leadership “from the background.” The female first trumpet player from Waynfleet richly deserved this honor.

I then saw in dizzying sequence the Biddeford High School Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Patrick Bolin, the Thornton Academy Jazz Band under the direction of Jennifer Witherell-Stebbins, “Enigma” from Maine Central Institute under the direction of Dean Neal, and the four-piece Biddeford High School Jazz Combo, also under the direction of Patrick Bolin. All were excellent, especially the last jazz combo, which featured bass, guitar, drums, and keyboard. Unfortunately, there was no time between acts to gather the names of the players and they weren’t listed in the program, so I can’t give them by name the accolades they deserve. All four of these players were performing at a professional caliber—not only in their technical mastery of their instruments, but also in the musical feeling they brought to their work.

Tiny Mount Desert Island High School had two offerings toward the end of the afternoon: the 13-horn big band “DARTH,” and the ambiguously named 4-man combo “6 out of 10,” both under the inspired direction of Michael Remy.

MDI High School Big Band “DARTH”

Both groups performed with complete authority and ease. Although, as you might imagine, I was a bit tired by the end of the day, these kids got me to my feet once again. I was especially impressed with the combo’s final number, which started with the piano player (who looked like a young, mop-haired George Harrision) feeling out a series of sparse melodic lines that soon resolved into some absolutely gorgeous harmonic cadences more akin to classical music than jazz. I loved it!

I thought that I had seen and heard it all, but there was more. That evening, following the awards ceremony there was a full concert in the Hynes Center’s huge auditorium (seating capacity: 4,200 and nearly every seat filled) featuring four or five of the best bands from around the country. Every one of these performances was off-the-charts excellent, and I was glad to see Maine well-represented by Fryeburg Academy’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Mimi Rohlfing.

Freyburg Academy Vocal Jazz Ensemble

Lest you have tired of all the superlatives, let me just say that these kids were beyond amazing. The chorus of a dozen young men and women, backed up by a solid instrumental section, completely overwhelmed me with their precision and the emotional power of their delivery. I had never heard anything like it from any age group.”

Peter Alexander, aka Peter Blachly, served from 2012 – 2014 as Executive Director of Maine Alliance for Arts Education.