Jazz players get pointers at River Campus festival

Sunday, February 14, 2010
The Farmington Jazz Ensemble performs "Quincy's Groove" Friday, February 12, 2010 during the 12th annual Phi Mu Alpha Jazz Festival at Bedell Performance Hall on the River Campus. (LAURA SIMON)

The Dixieland sounds that filled the air Saturday at Southeast Missouri State University came from more than 400 high school music students taking part in the Clark Terry/Phi Mu Alpha Jazz Festival.

Three expert jazz musicians spent Friday and Saturday judging 18 high school jazz bands from across the region in the Bedell Performance Hall.

"Their goal isn't to criticize but to help students enjoy their music more," said Dr. Robert Conger, festival coordinator and associate music professor at Southeast. After each band performed, judges took a few minutes to offer pointers to the students and provide them with taped oral comments and written critiques.

Students said the judges' suggestions motivate them to improve their techniques.

"We want to help them on their journey toward musical perfection," Conger said.

The students, who had studied more traditional types of music, were drawn to jazz because of its relaxed style.

"It gives you the freedom to improvise," said Wilson McNeary, a senior guitar player at Charleston High School. "It's not a set form. You can take it any way you want to take it."

It's also a forgiving genre of music. "If you mess up, you can't really tell," said trombone player Tiffany Nation, a senior at Ste. Genevieve High School.

Students enjoy jazz because it allows them to be creative, said North County High School jazz band director Dan Schunks of Bonne Terre, Mo.

"Through solos and improvisation, students can make their own musical statement," said Schunks, who is in his 34th year of teaching music.

Jazz is a uniquely American art form. "It really had its birth in New Orleans, then traveled up the Mississippi River and on to Chicago," Conger said.

Much of modern popular music has been influenced by jazz, he said. "If it weren't for jazz, there would be no rock 'n' roll. Country music also grew out of jazz," he said.

Along with two days of high school performances, the festival included a gala concert Friday evening by Southeast's Studio Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Lab Band. The concert featured performances by Joe Eckert, former lead alto saxophonist with the U.S. Air Force's jazz band, The Airmen of Note.

More than 300 people attended the concert, including many of the students participating in the festival.

"The concert gives students the opportunity to see where the next level is, to see people who have done well and continued their relationships with music and their instruments," Schunks said.

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