Jazzing it up

Aethne Hinchliffe
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Saxophones, trumpets, a trombone, percussions and a keyboard play ‘Zoot Suit Riot,’ until director Scott MacDonald raises his hand to stop the 12-member ensemble.

Leah Whynot plays ‘Zoot Suit Riot,’ on the trombone at a Mersey Youth Jazz Band practice. Director Scott MacDonald started the jazz band in late September.

“I’d like to hear the saxophones. Start at the beginning again,” says the director.


New band


The notes echoing through the halls of Gorham School are being played by the Mersey Youth Jazz Band. MacDonald, who also directs the Mersey Concert Band, began the ensemble in late September.

MacDonald says he saw a need to give the youth members of the concert band a group of their own to play in. He wanted the younger members to have the chance to play music they might not otherwise have the opportunity to play.


“I’m largely basing it on stuff that would be familiar to them,” says MacDonald.

The band is playing some classic rock songs, such as ‘Louis Louis’ and ‘Livin’ la Vida Loca.’ Those who play saxophone in the jazz band play clarinet in the concert band, says MacDonald.

The trombone player in the jazz band plays euphonium in the concert band, and the jazz band’s percussionist plays flute.

Leah Whynot sits in the back of the room, a trombone in hand. The afternoon sun streams in the window behind her.

Leah began to play the instrument, which is the brass family, shortly before joining the new ensemble.

“I play euphonium in the concert band, so Scott said it would be best if I played the trombone, so I just went with that,” says Leah.

Leah picked up the euphonium about a year ago when she joined the concert band. She says her mother is also a member and told her about it, so she decided it would be fun to join.

Her decision to join the jazz group was similar. Leah says she thought it would be fun to play jazz music. Although she likes it, she says it’s difficult because she has to read bass clef to play trombone and treble clef to play the euphonium. 

“The kids are really liking it,” says MacDonald. “They’re putting a lot of time, a lot of practice in, in addition to their other repertoire.”

The director says he thinks the band is good because it allows younger musicians to take the lead. In the concert band, the youth members play with older and more experienced musicians. But in the jazz band, says MacDonald, they have the opportunity to take a bigger leadership role.

MacDonald describes the jazz ensemble as an offshoot of the Mersey Band. Members are between the ages of 11 and 16.

“This is pretty much a pilot project for the band,” says MacDonald. “Nothing like this has been done before.” 

When MacDonald went through the Mersey Band training system in 1993, there were no opportunities for younger musicians. This was partly what inspired the director. Another of the director’s inspirations was the fact he was in the last band program at the junior high school.


Music in schools


Among schools in Queens County, North Queens Community School in Caledonia and South Queens Junior High School offer music programs as part of their curriculum. 

The music program at North Queens Regional School began five years ago. Before that, there was no music teacher. Grade 7 students can take music as a credit course, with the option to do band or the ‘explore music’ curriculum. Alison Williams, who teaches music at North Queens, says she is hoping to expand the band program in the coming years.

Warren Dobson, the music teacher at South Queens Junior High School, says the ‘explore music,’ curriculum began about three years ago. Students have the opportunity to play steel-string acoustic guitar, classical guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar and drums.

“We offer a more modern approach to music than what’s been done traditionally,” says Dobson. 

The music course is one of a number of electives students can choose, he says.

As part of the relatively new project-based learning for Grade 9 students, Dobson offers a song-writing 101 module. He says there are 27 modules, of which students must take six.

“My course in song writing is one that is becoming quite popular,” he says.

South Queens also offers a program of open mic shows to allow students to perform, says Dobson. There are five or six shows a year, and they take place on Thursday or Friday afternoons within school hours.


Back to jazz


MacDonald says things are just coming together, so where the jazz band will play has not been determined.

“I’m hoping to do part of the spring concert,” he says.

As the band reaches the end of ‘Zoot Suit Riot,’ MacDonald has a large grin on his face. He congratulates the young musicians enthusiastically and reminds them this was their first time playing a song from beginning to end.

Organizations: Gorham School, Mersey Youth Jazz Band, North Queens Community School Caledonia and South Queens Junior High School North Queens Regional School

Geographic location: Queens

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