Swingin’ State of Mind

Shazz continues to shine in its 10th year
Charles Collier Leader Correspondent

“If there’s one missing element from younger wind players, it’s keeping the wind moving forward.”
This was some of the advice offered by saxophonist and accomplished jazz musician Eric Marienthal to some 20 middle school and high school jazz bands from 12 northeast Wisconsin schools at the Shawano Jazz Festival—Shazz for short—in its tenth rendition at Shawano High School last Saturday.
Keeping a strong base of energetic wind moving forward would be an effective descriptor if a decade of intensive jazz clinics could be articulated within a single metaphor. The event has proven to be an invaluable resource for growing musicians, helping strengthen bridges between junior high and high school.
Bill Dennee, Denmark Middle School band director, has been at nine of the ten festivals, bringing his band to compete and his expertise to critique. Having extended time to focus on jazz and to introduce growing students to professional players can be a transformative experience, he said.
“I think for middle school kids, it’s that chance for them to have the opportunity to try it. At this age level they’re so willing to try anything, and as they get a little bit older that willingness kind of goes away,” Dennee said, “A big thing that’s important is when they get to come to the faculty concert they get to hear professionals playing their instruments. They’re right next to them—we sit and play with the kids…just that, being right up next close to somebody, it’s that interaction that can make a big difference.”
That difference goes farther than finding a new appreciation for the music of the soul. In many cases, as the several Shawano alumni donning Shazz t-shirts as the event’s volunteers visually attested, being exposed to the highest levels of musicianship can with no exaggeration change a student’s life.
The Shawano Jazz Foundation sponsored Emily Jones to attend a variety of jazz camps while she was a student at the high school, immersing her in, “the language of jazz” and providing a certainty to her direction. She volunteers with the organization today not just to give back to an organization she says has given her much, but also to pass on the torch of inspiration whose light guided her path.
“As a student to come and watch all these alumni in the all-star band; these alumni that graduated from Shawano and were in your shoes a couple years ago and now they’re doing what you want to do—seeing someone from Shawano doing that and seeing you can achieve that goal,” she said, “I think it’s so inspiring.”
“Andy Martin,” an accomplished trombonist with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and with more than 100 movie credits to his name who served as one of many high profile Shazz guest artists, “I played with him my sophomore year, and he was this musical icon—someone that you want to model your trombone sound off of,” said Jones, who graduated in 2017 and is now studying music education at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. “I got to sit next to him, and he says, ‘Oh, nice solo’ and I’m like ‘Oh my God! Andy Martin just told me I had a nice solo!”
Neither Martin’s name nor that of this year’s guest artist Eric Marienthal may sound familiar to the casual listener, but that’s somewhat the point. Showing young, aspiring performers the magic of professionals they are not necessarily familiar with displays the complexity and liveliness of jazz culture.
“A lot of people think that jazz has kind of fizzled out, or if you ask them who their favorite jazz artist is they’ll name someone classic, and that’s great obviously the classics are good, but we get to introduce them to some of the newer ones,” said Public Relations Administrator Laura Arens, herself a 2017 Shawano alumni.
Arens continued, “Jazz in particular is like its own language; it speaks, it got history, its got a story and they get to be a part of it. They go from ‘Oh, yeah, I have a jazz band class or an extra-curricular’ and then they go ‘Wow. This music we’re playing is deep.’”
But to become fluent in the tongue requires practice, a staple of every music instructor’s lecture. While Marienthal dazzled the students with his playing, it was his story of practicing endlessly when attending the Berklee College of Music that earned the most admiration. He told of spending upwards of ten hours a day in the college’s practice rooms perfecting etude books, all because he wanted to live up to the example his professor had set.
“I had a really inspiring teacher that really encouraged me and I wanted to impress him—the more you practice the better you play and the more you play the more you want to practice, so it feeds itself,” Marienthal told The Leader.
Engaging with students at clinics around the country every year isn’t about elevating all to pursue a profession in music, Marienthal said. More so, its about helping them find their voice and fostering a mindset of constant, passionate self-improvement.
“Not everybody here, obviously, is going to go on to become a professional musician but everybody here is clearly doing it because they enjoy doing it—its an elective. Its nice to be able to do something or say something to somebody that might inspire a student to either practice a little bit more or to become inspired,” Marienthal said.
The Shawano Jazz Festival’s make-up provides ample opportunities for those inspiring bits to come out. Most clinics give bands about 30 minutes to perform their pieces before receive either quick verbal critiques or written comments afterward. Shazz carves out one-hour slots, giving clinicians and students an intimate and deep learning experience, something that most of the alumni volunteering on Saturday said was an invaluable feature.
Arens said that, on the technical and operational side, the Festival has undergone just minimal changes since 2010 when then-senior Alexandra Isaacson built the Foundation with a $250 scholarship she used as seed money the year before. In the ten years of its life, the Festival has brought in more than 3,000 students and in so doing has built a reputation that stretches far beyond the local area.
“We get to speak for the larger jazz community,” Arens said, “we have people come in from not even just Shawano, but around the state because they come and they know we bring in Grammy artists and they love to support that kind of a gig.”
“We’re very lucky,” Arens said.
What couldn’t be chalked up to luck, though, was the Shawano Middle School Jazz Band earning first place among their peers.