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Local High School Bands Take the Stage at 25th Annual Santa Cruz Jazz Festival


Written by Maria Gaura

La Vida Local

SANTA CRUZ (March 2011) - At 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, Steve Wilson’s classroom sounds like a San Francisco nightclub, and looks like a set from “Glee.”  A shaggy-haired lad pounds out the melody of Dexter Gordon’s “Cheesecake” on piano, accompanied by a broad-shouldered sax player, jeans-clad guitarist, and a girl with long blond hair deftly driving the drum kit.
A half-dozen lanky teens are draped over molded plastic chairs, cradling electric guitars, violins, cello or clarinet, seemingly preoccupied by other thoughts. Then, with no noticeable cue, a guitarist shifts position and joins in, and a violinist props one foot on the opposite knee, and smoothly slips into the musical current.
They play like pros, but these musicians are juniors and seniors in Harbor High School’s Jazz Band, and the piece they’re practicing is one of two jazz standards they hope will earn them honors - and a command performance - at the 25th annual Santa Cruz Jazz Festival, taking place this weekend at Cabrillo College.
As skilled as they are, the Harbor High musicians expect serious competition. Some 2,000 student performers from all over California will begin streaming onto the Cabrillo College campus Friday, drawn by the Jazz Festival’s professional judging, master classes with jazz luminaries, scholarships, and the opportunity to perform onstage in Cabrillo’s beautiful new performance venue.  
The two-day festival, founded by a group of local music teachers in 1986, attracts jazz bands, combos and choirs from scores of high schools and colleges, and even a few middle schools, according to Wilson, who is also a 20-year member of the festival's board of directors. While many bands come from wealthy suburban areas such as Marin County, a large number hail from small towns throughout the Central Valley farm belt, where communities still proudly support their high school bands.
The turnout is particularly impressive considering that music education in California’s public schools has dwindled dramatically in recent years.
“A lot of these programs are kept alive by parent and booster groups,” Wilson said. “I have two classes at Harbor High, and we’re hanging on by our fingernails. Santa Cruz High and Soquel (High School) are also sending bands, but Aptos (High School), which used to be a music powerhouse, doesn’t have a music program at all anymore. We lost something very good, when that disappeared.”
Musical selections performed at the festival must be jazz, but “we consider jazz to be a pretty wide umbrella,” Wilson said. “You’ve got traditional big band, modern, Latin and rock, and the vocalists can do straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz and some pop.
“As a musical director I might sometimes sneak in something from (the Broadway musical) “Rent,” or a pop tune,” Wilson said. “We offer a lot of leeway, but if you’re choosing a Green Day medley, or something from “Glee,” we’d say ‘nice try, but that’s not jazz’, and your score would suffer.”
The Festival kicks off Friday morning at 8 a.m. and continues headlong throughout the day, winding up at 7 p.m. with a performance by saxophonist Paul Contos, the Cabrillo Jazz Ensemble and vocal group Vertical Voices. Saturday’s schedule culminates at 7 p.m. with a command performance featuring every group receiving a unanimous “Superior” rating from a panel of judges.
Spectators can observe performances in any of the festival venues, and attend both evening concerts, with the purchase of a $10 all-festival pass.
The Santa Cruz Jazz Festival takes place March 18 and 19, at various venues on the Cabrillo College Campus. Check the Jazz Festival website for campus maps and other information.
Harbor High School’s jazz choir performs at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in Cabrillo’s recital hall, and the jazz band performs at 4:40 p.m. Saturday in the recital hall.
Santa Cruz High School’s jazz band performs at 9 a.m. Friday in Cabrillo’s Crocker Theater.
Soquel High School’s jazz choir competes at 11:30 a.m. Friday in the recital hall, and the jazz band performs at 1:30 p.m. Friday in the Crocker Theater. 
Shoreline Middle School's Jazz Band performs at 9 a.m. Friday in room 5156.