At DODDS Jazz seminar teen musicians keep beat of different drum
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Most teenagers probably don’t have the “Salsa Caribena” in their Spotify playlist or downloaded to their MP3 devices.
But the funky, Cuban-flavored jazz piece is now a favorite among some young musicians attending military schools in Europe, where an annual jazz seminar strives to spark a lifelong interest in the art form by exposing them to the best the genre has to offer.
Rehearsals for this year’s seminar began Sunday afternoon, with 27 band members and eight vocalists. For the third year, students are working under guest clinician Darmon Meader, a world-renowned jazz vocalist, saxophonist, arranger and educator with the vocal ensemble New York Voices.
By Tuesday, the jazz ensemble was hitting most of the right notes as they played “Salsa Caribena,” their toes busy tapping to the quick beat as they played on the stage inside the Nightingale Theater, usually the rehearsal site for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe band.
“It’s really fun to play,” baritone saxophonist Maddie Haggard, a freshman from Stuttgart High School, said of the piece. “There’s this awesome bass line that we play, and it’s super interesting.”
Haggard plays in the jazz band at Stuttgart but didn’t listen to jazz much in her free time until she began practicing for the seminar.
“I’m listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra, a lot of Ella Fitzgerald,” she said. “I’m trying to listen to it more. I fell in love with all the stuff that we’re playing.”
The lineup for the week is no breeze. On tap for the students’ concert Thursday night in Landstuhl are some big band numbers such as Alan Baylock’s “Hickory and Twine” and Dominic Spera’s “Blue Bones,” as well as a rearranged version of Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” (from the musical Sweeney Todd).
The students will also perform an original piece that jazz seminar teachers commissioned directly from Meader, a rearrangement of Cole Porter’s “Dream Dancing.”
“It’s the toughest music they will do in their high school career,” said Cheryl Donaldson, the seminar’s vocal ensemble director and a music teacher at Lakenheath High School in England.
“This is definitely college-level material or really good high school music.”
Meader, who travels all over the world performing with New York Voices, said the jazz seminar gives students at the military’s schools in Europe the kinds of opportunities they might have had if they auditioned in the States for an all-state band.
“The military has taken the time supporting (a) program like this; it’s good for me to jump in and help out,” he said.
To be a good jazz musician requires “really paying attention to the details, whether it’s your voice” or instrument, Meader said, and “really developing exceptional technique. The more technique you have, the more creative you can be, the more freedom you have.”
The students seemed to be hanging on Meader’s every word, whether it was advice on how to sing scat convincingly or how to infuse the end of a note with as much energy as the beginning.
“He’s a genius,” said vocalist Josh Wilson of Meader. “He can pull notes out of the air that you don’t even know existed. I think that’s what we’re all working towards, to just have that higher understanding of music and jazz.”
A junior from Vicenza, Italy, Wilson is attending his third jazz seminar. He said the days are intense. Singing continues outside seminar in the showers and late at night until lights out.
“It’s exhausting but every year, I’m almost in tears and I can’t wait until the next year,” he said.
Tenor saxophonist Joshua Steiner, a senior at Naples High School in Italy, was fighting some nerves while playing a solo in front of his peers, not to mention Meader.
“That’s like whoa,” he said of Meader.
Despite the nerves, he was having a blast, he said.
“Hickory and Twine” is his favorite tune. “You get to scream on that. It’s loud and bluesy, and it’s a lot of fun to play.”
Scott Rumery, a music teacher from Brussels and the seminar’s musical director, said jazz is a style of music “that’s harder to get at” because it’s more sophisticated and challenging to play. “It doesn’t reach everyone,” he said. “But when it does reach you, it doesn’t leave you.”