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Jazz bands scale up collaboration

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Student musicians dressed in everyday school clothes ran through sharp performances of songs like "Dat Dere" and "Afro Blue" Friday as fellow student jazz musicians sat back and enjoyed the groove. The music swelled and receded, stopped and started and swirled around the clumps of students and teacher/clinicians in the audience in the brand new Moose Lake Schools auditorium

Essentially, Moose Lake Schools put on a jazz festival Friday, but only for musicians.

Mission accomplished, said Moose Lake Band Director Ryan Hanson, who hosted the Esko and Barnum jazz bands along with his own students in the first "Jazz Day" collaboration for the three schools.

After each school performed, students divided by instrument or section — trombone, trumpet, saxophone, rhythm section — and walked to different places where they worked with professional musicians — or clinicians — to hone their craft.

Duluth's Tim Stratioti worked with about a dozen trombone players three times Friday. With his goatee and newsboy cap, Stratioti was the embodiment of "cool jazz musician."

He began his first session by talking about trombone maintenance but soon moved on to daily practice rituals."Long tones and lip slurs, are the superfood of chops," he tells the high school students, referring to the ability to physically execute the music and chord changes. "Scales are the superfood of technique. I do both every day."

He compares being a musician to being a long-distance runner. Runners don't stop running when the season is over, he notes, they continue to put on the miles, although it may be at a slower pace. Miles are the superfood of running, he explains before circling back to music.

"Playing is just what it implies: having fun," said Stratioti. "You should play every day. Practice is working on weakness in your playing. It's like calisthenics."

Jazz Day was the brainchild of Esko band director Rich Mowers, who rounded up the clinicians and planned the three-hour event with help from Hanson (who worked with Mowers in Esko for nine years) and Barnum band director Jeff Gilbertson.

The day began at noon with three tunes from Esko's Jazz Band 1, followed by a workshop. Then it was Barnum's turn to play, followed by another workshop. At 2 p.m. the Moose Lake jazz band took to the stage, and the day ended after a third workshop and the end of the school day.

Mowers said he has always wanted to take his jazz bands on the road to other schools. That way, his kids can feel like "stewards" of jazz, he said. Plus, he really likes the opportunity for kids to hear other jazz bands.

Mowers has been teaching for 28 years — 21 of those in Esko. He says he's lucky to have landed there, where the district is geographically small, so it's not too challenging for students to get to school early three days a week to practice.

When he arrived at Esko, Mowers said they had one jazz band, but it wasn't long before he started a second jazz band. Just like a youth football program will develop players for a high school or beyond, Jazz Band 2 basically acts as a feeder program for Jazz Band 1.

"It also gives a lot more kids the opportunity to experience jazz, even if they don't make the cut," he said with a smile.

Mowers is also a jazz musician, so he's teaching what he loves. It shows as he stands off to the side of the rhythm section as the Esko jazz students perform, moving to the music, grooving on the sounds his students are creating.

Mowers admits he was advised early on by adjudicators not to "overstep his role."

"The more you do, the less they do," he said.

So when it's time to perform, he exits.

"I've done all my work already," he said. "You have to get out of the way and let them fly. And if they crash, that's learning, too."

Although the performances were great, Hanson said the day was more about learning than performing: exploring those vital questions of "How can we get better?" and "How can we get to the next step?"

That's where the clinicians came in.

Saxophone Clinician David Strong came from Schmitt Music's Brooklyn Center store, as did Ben Alle. Strong worked with the saxophone players while Alle worked with trumpets.

After listening to a group of five Esko students run through part of a song, Strong advised the lead alto saxophone player to "sing."

"The lead also should almost always sing," he said. "And, you guys need to try to support him rather than bury him alive."

They run through part of the song again, while Strong leans in, even joins in at one point.

The students are comfortable with Strong, and baritone saxophone player Jon Stracek asks Strong about a challenging part of the song. Strong advises that "it's weird, not what you would think" and demonstrates how to play it.

At the same time, band directors from University of Minnesota Duluth (Ryan Frame) and

The College of St. Scholastica (Michael Buck) were advising the rhythm sections, along with one of Rich Mowers best friends, drummer Kurt Salvela, who came up from Byron, Minn., for the event. UMD professor Josh Skinner also coached the young musicians.

The four men worked almost one-to-one with student musicians on the drums, piano and bass guitar Friday.

There was also a little scouting going on, both ways, as the college professors got to see local talent and the students got to connect with musicians that could be their future band director someday.

On Monday, Hanson asked his Moose Lake jazz students what they thought of the day. They loved listening to the other bands Friday, and really liked the three master classes between performances where they could hear from their fellow students and the professional musicians running the classes.

It's important to collaborate, Hanson said. Mower noted that schools in Carlton County are focusing on more collaboration and learning from each other as a policy as well. That certainly helped the three band directors get the funding and support for their special jazz day on Friday.

"Collaborating like this keeps the (band) directors learning from each other and it keeps the students learning from each other," Hanson said. "When I give guitar lessons, I will often suggest they go work with a different teacher. It's so important to broaden your horizons, go learn from other people."