Thursday, March 29, 2012
After more than 20 years, it would be understandable if there was nothing left to blow Paul Contos’ mind. But the education director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, who described the student-based Next Generation Jazz Festival as a “superlative casserole of performances,” finds himself routinely astonished at the young talent that takes the stage at the music fest.
A few years ago, for example, a high-school big band from Portland, Oregon, almost made Contos’ head explode. He was supposed to judge the performance, but dropped his pencil and pad a few minutes into the set and was frozen in a state of perpetual entrancement.
“[The band] came out and they were swinging so hard my jaw dropped,” Contos says. “They sounded like Duke Ellington’s band and played a complete 30-minute program without stopping once; about halfway through, I realized there weren’t music stands on the stage.”
The prestigious competition – 10 winning groups get to play the Monterey County Fairgrounds’ coveted main arena at the 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival – features performances by high school big bands, combos and vocal groups. But the event is much more than a run-of-the-mill battle of the bands.
“It’s not just one of these factory-type festivals where school groups just show up, go into a warm-up room, do their performance and get back on a bus,” Contos says. “It’s an environment where there’s a lot of sharing going on and young musicians can collaborate.”
And that’s why the competition stands out from the others. Not only are emerging talents able to play complicated compositions penned years before they were conceived, they’re able to deliver those timeless pieces with the soul of seasoned pros beyond their years – and they’re hungry to learn more.
Another element is an international presence that includes gifted teens from Monterey’s Japanese sister city of Nano.
“[Nano] is very much akin to Monterey,” says Contos, who’s visited the city more than a dozen times. “They have a fisherman’s wharf and they even have a summer music festival called the Monterey Jazz Festival.”
The weekend is also a chance for gifted up-and-comers to pick up knowledge from a master. The 2012 Monterey Jazz Festival artist-in-residence and Next Generation Jazz Festival alumnus, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire will be on hand all weekend to participate in performances as well as run master classes. The Oakland native was a member of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s High School All-Star Band in 1999 and 2000. Pop Matters wrote that his 2011 album When the Heart Emerges Glistening, “should send shivers up every jazz fan’s spine.”
A gathering of 1,200 teenagers, most of whom can play Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue note for note on their instruments, should also be enough to send shivers up every jazz fan’s spine.
NEXT GENERATION JAZZ FESTIVAL happens 8pm Friday, March 30; 9am-11pm Saturday, March 31 and 9am-6pm Sunday, April 1; Monterey Conference Center, One Portola Plaza, Monterey. Free (Friday VIP Gold Circle tickets $50). 373-3366.