This is my 3rd entry in 4 days.
This entry is intended to clear up the best junior high jazz pianist nonsense that pops up every so often. As always, I’m gonna ramble in telling it.
Growing up, my schools were always on the poorer side, something that’s made me bitter to this very day. I don’t think all the spoiled kids at Stanford (of which I am one) truly recognize how unfair the education system really is. Just the advantages of being in the right school system is enormous. Like look at all the people who come to Stanford from schools like Lynbrook, Monta Vista, and the like. It’s not that they’re all smarter there. They just happen to be from the right schools. I truly believe that. Anyway, it’s an unfair advantage, one that makes you bitter if you’re on the wrong side of it.
Maybe I’m delusional about the quality of my school, maybe it wasn’t as bad as I believe. It certainly wasn’t the worst school system out there, but it was down there. And it was definitely among the poorer systems. Maybe you can look it up. Oak Grove School District. I looked at the test score results in the Mercury a few weeks ago, where they list the percentage of students that come from what are classified as economically disadvantaged familes. All the typical rich schools, like Bret Harte, Miller, you know, Cupertino area and Almaden schools were low, like 5%. My elementary school, Glider, was 40%! I’m sure it’s changed since I’ve been there, but I mean, it’s always been more disadvantaged.
Argh, just thinking about it now still makes me angry. It was everything, from the P.E. / team uniforms, to the libraries, to facilities; our district had nothing. When you compared what we had to what my friends had, it was just a cheap imitation. Seriously, it’s no surprise to me why people in bad schools do poorly. It’s like, it’s hard to take really seriously when everything is second rate. You get the feeling you’re doing it, but not really doing it, if that makes any sense. Anyway, the unfairness of the education system pisses me off, because it’s perpetuating the classes in society, and that sucks.
At any rate, any time our school system succeeded, it was a double victory, because we had to do it in difficult circumstances. And the jazz program at our middle school was one of those victories.
So not many people know this, and I myself am so far from it I don’t even know what it’s like anymore, but there’s this society of junior high and high school jazz around the country. Every school seems to have its band crowd, that competes in marching band competitions, but this is different.
What happens is, there are all these regional jazz festivals, in which different junior high school and high school bands compete. When I was in junior high, not every school had it, so after going to a bunch of competitions, you’d kind of get an idea who was your competition, what other schools were out there.
So like a small competition would be like the Chabot College Jazz Festival. A bigger one would be the Santa Cruz Jazz Festival. The biggest one we went to every year was the Reno Jazz Festival. Tons of schools from various states went to that one.
Anyway, most of the festivals were similar. You’d have a short (about 3 songs) set, and there would be about 3 judges who rated you. I forgot how the ratings worked, but it was essentially your typical ratings – excellent, good, average, etc. There was also usually a sight reading aspect to it – each band would go to a room and each member would be given parts to song they’ve never seen before. They get like 5 minutes to look at it, then you have to play it. It’s pretty tough, if you can imagine it.
So what happens is every band gets judged and they post the results, and at some festivals, the bigger ones, if you get all oustanding marks, you get to perform in the closing concert. Usually just one song or so. It’s actually a lot of fun. You get to hang out all day with your friends, and hear and play good music. Lots of fun.
I should also clarify – we played big band, not combo jazz. Jazz combos are real small, with like drums, bass, sometimes piano, and just a couple instruments. The emphasis is on improv. It’s like chamber music. And Big band is like the orchestra – mostly written out parts, although there are always improvised solos.
So our setup, which is pretty standard, was a rhythm section with drums, bass, and piano, 5 saxes (one baritone, 2 tenor and 2 alto), 4 trombones (1 of them a bass trombone) and 4 trumpets. I think. We may have had 5 trumpets, doubling up on one part. Anyway, some bands use a guitar, we used a vibraphone at times, but that was the standard setup. And all our music was arranged for this – each member of the band gets a unique part. You know, like 1st – 4th trumpet, or 2nd tenor sax and whatever.
As always, our school had to work from a disadvantaged position. Some of the schools we competed against were 7th – 9th grade. I cannot overstate how much of an advantage an extra year is. I mean, it’s incredibly huge. And this particular school, with the 9th graders, were consistenly amazing. The stuff they would play – incredible.
But that actually wasn’t the killer. What killed us was that some schools had enough funding to start their music programs in 4th grade. 4th grade! That is just an insane advantage. We didn’t have money. So what happened is that the music person from the junior high school would come to each of the elementary schools once a week for an hour. It sucked for him, and it wasn’t the best teaching situation, but you do what you can. Oh, and it was only for 6th graders.
So I started playing clarinet in the 6th grade. I was pretty good. The best at my school, and the district. In junior high, I was first chair, and actually made all section once. That, by the way was a lot of fun – playing with an extremely competent band in Monterey. but this isn’t about clarinet.
Somehow, the band leaders (Mr. and Mrs. Sl0cum) found out that I played piano. I totally can’t remember how exactly this happened, since they only knew me as a clarinet player, but somehow. Anyway, they felt they needed a pianist for the jazz band. There was actually another pianist, Genev1eve Brown, but she also switched off on drums with the other drummer, M@rio (I think his last name was) Lim@.
The way it worked was, there was a 7th grade band, and then an 8th grade band, which met 1st period. Our school had a rotating class system, meaning the periods met at different times depending on the day of the week. Except for 1st period, which always met first thing in the morning. So special or important classes usually met in the first period, like 8th grade concert band. This was the typical band that played typical band music that you have at most schools. The 7th grade band classes would meet during one of the other, rotating periods.
But then we had the cream of the crop, the jazz band, of which only a few members of the concert band took part. Anyway, you can see from the structure that the jazz band was all 8th graders. What usually happened is that the 7th graders play in their band for a while, so they can figure out who’s good, then later in the 2nd semester they form like a prep jazz band, which plays like easy pieces, to kind of introduce them to jazz and prepare them for being in the jazz band the following year.
Both the jazz band and the prep band met in the morning, before normal classes, although the prep band, I think they actually called it lab band, only started meeting late in the school year. The jazz band was always the first people at school every day, including any faculty and staff. And some mornings, I tell you, it was early. It was still dark outside during the winter. But that’s how it worked.
Anyway, it was unusual for a 7th grader to be in the jazz band, but there were always 1 or 2 or 3 of these special cases, either because they were really good or there was a need. I was probably the second case. Our lead trumpet my 8th grade year, Justin, was the first case. There was a lot of buzz about him because he had been playing the trumpet since the 4th grade. That was a big deal. If you’d been playing for that long, it didn’t matter who you were – you were better than anyone else. When you’re that young, just a couple years extra makes a world of difference.
At any rate, I managed to get on the jazz band in 7th grade. There was a lot of hope for the jazz band that year. What happens is, at the bigger jazz festivals, if you do well (all superior marks) you get an invite to the national festival, Musicfest U.S.A. I’m not sure if this exists anymore. But what happened was the band at my school, C@roline D@vis Intermediate, had done better and better through the years, and the year previous had gotten an invite to Musicfest U.S.A. for the first time. So hopes were high for my 7th grade year.
Mr. and Mrs. Sl0cum, the band directors, switched off leading the band each year. Mrs. Sl0cum had directed the band the year previous, so my 7th grade year Mr. Sl0cum was in charge. I don’t think I’ll say that much about them. Like all teachers who have to push their students and with whom you spend copious amounts of time, we hated them to a certain extent. But we loved them also, and those were truly some of the best times of my life. They were dedicated also. Like I said, they went to all the elementary schools once a week in addition to teaching band at D@vis, and they lived in Santa Cruz to boot. I actually think it was hard on their marriage – I found out that after I graduated, they eventually stopped teaching band and just taught math and they got a new guy. But anyway.
A big part of the previous year’s success was the pianist, whose name I can’t remember. But he was dope. D@vis jazz band, besides competing in festivals, also went to the different elementary schools in the district to perform. So I heard the band when I was at Glider. I remember them saying how they got a Musicfest invite that year, and how everyone was impressed by the pianist. I was impressed too, of course. But being the cocky punk I was, I also thought I could be better. And you’ll find out later I was right.
Anyway, hopes were high for my 7th grade year, and we were actually pretty good. Playing jazz is pretty difficult – you just kind of have to feel the swing, and if it’s not there, there’s just no energy. It’s hard to teach – you just kind of get the feeling by many hours of repetition. Anyway, I got the hang of it pretty quick, and I didn’t have to improv much, so it wasn’t that hard.
I really need to explain that. Jazz in junior high is a lot less improvisational than real jazz. Everything is written out for you (except for solos), so it’s not like you really learn to play jazz, you just play what’s on the page. It’s a little more complicated than that. Like especially piano music, sometimes they’d just write the chord name and tell you to play block chords (comp), and I’d figure out how to play that. But for the most part, I just played what was there, so I couldn’t play anything jazzy for the life of me now. I never learned to improv, and never really thought about the theory, so I’m not joking when I say I’m a horrendous jazz pianist now. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But I suppose I was pretty good in my time.
Jazz solos aren’t written out however. The Sl0cums had a pretty good method – most jazz is built around the blues scale, and even if it isn’t, if you play it it usually fits in all right. So what they did was pass out blues scales in each key, and for our solos, you just mess around using the appropriate scale. I mean, this just touches the surface of what’s in jazz, but it was enough for junior high schoolers. That’s pretty much all you can do to teach someone to solo in jazz, and like I said, given enough time, you end up absorbing it and some people get pretty good.
I was good because I had a good ear for melody. I could hear things really well, and could come up with some good lines, but I wasn’t a good enough pianist then to be able to immediately play what I heard in my head. I kind of had to figure it out. So what I did was, I’d spend some time at home figuring out the music I heard in my head, and write that down. When we performed, let’s say I had a 16 bar solo. For the first 8 bars, I’d play what I wrote down, which was to be frank, pretty dope jazz, just not improvised – I’d play the same first 8 bars every performance. Then the last 8 bars I’d screw around based on the blues scale, and that’s where I did my improv.
The second 8 bars were never as good as the first 8; I just wasn’t a good enough pianist then. I wish I could have a go at it now. But anyway, because of the way I did it, the impression would be this – they’d hear the first 8 bars, which were absolutely dope, and they’d think whoa the pianist is pretty good. Then the 2nd 8 bars you can tell I’m improving and they realize I’m not just playing off the page. So the first 8 bars established that I was good, and the 2nd 8 bars that I was improving. So my solos usually made a good impression. You know it’s good when the judge stops writing and just taps his pencil and bobs his head.
Anyway, we were good that year. It was a little tense for me, feeling really out of place and often friendless, since I was the only 7th grader there. Plus, I didn’t want to be obnoxious or anything, and wanted to be willing to just sit in my place. What I mean is, I didn’t want Genev1eve to feel like I was trying to push her out. So it was delicate – I had to be willing to not play for some songs, wince she had seniority. Now that I think about it, it’s a lot like worship team at KCPC. But anyway, I only played on the songs where she played drums, and on other songs I either sat out or played something else. Like for Latin Satin, I played bongoes. Pretty well, also.
But I mean, when you spend 2 hours a day and many weekends together, you get to be friends. It was really a great year. There’s just something about being part of a good, musical group of people that’s just special. Henry alluded to it in one of his recent entries. But it’s a real special feeling. And we had it – we were good. We had terrible outfits, which only emphasized how poor our school was, but we sounded darn good.
Anyway, we did well at most of the festivals we went to, and qualified for Musicfest U.S.A. I’m leaving out a lot of details. But everytime we did well, it was a good feeling. Especially at the Santa Cruz Festival. The Santa Cruz Festival was the biggest local festival, and if you did well, you got to play at the Cocoanut Grove in the evening of the second day. The time in between we messed around the Boardwalk and stuff. So much fun – getting ready, listening to other bands, and then playing. Such a great feeling. Everything about the competitions was a lot of fun – moving all the equipment, rehearsing, hearing your competition.
The competition part was a big part of it. Every year, the richer schools which started their music program earlier were always much better than us. But we practiced a lot (I mean, really a lot) and we managed to pull even eventually. I don’t know how we did it, the poor school that we were. I also never figured out whether it was that the Sl0cums were that good teachers, or if it was just something special about that group, where time and space came together to form a truly special jazz band. Because there was nothing special about our district. But honestly, our bands were good. Objectively.
I guess what I wonder is whether it was just something special, that all the kids that happened to be in that band at that school at that time just happened to all be really good. Or if it was the educators that made us good. I wonder about that a lot. My band experience always makes me wonder about whether it’s that students at other schools are inherently smarter (like at Monta Vista) or whether it’s the education that makes them what they are.
I guess I can’t really say, but the music program at our school was special, and it made a bunch of nobodies into something special. Honestly, every time I think about that, how this poor public school managed to o what we did, it gives me a lot of hope about the possibilities of education. At the very least, of music education. But I digress.
Reno was also a really fun festival, because it meant a road trip. Something about taking a trip in junior high or high school is a lot of fun. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about. But the only opportunities to take a long trip like that in junior high was if you went to Washington D.C. at the end of the year, or if you were on the jazz band. Like I said, our school wasn’t that rich.
It was lots of fun, playing in the snow in the mountains, going to Circus Circus, and just messing around. And the jazz. Great jazz there. I remember hearing the UNLV jazz band there, with this incredible trombonist. You don’t often give a trombonist all the solos, but they did.
So we managed to qualify for Musicfest U.S.A. that year (7th grade). There was a lot of concern about how we were going to afford to go. What we ended up doing was a lot of fundraisers (chocolate bars) and this Safeway or Lucky program where if you spent enough on groceries you got special plane deals. Fund raising was actually another big part of band. Anyway, we raised the money, and we went to Philadelphia.
Philadelphia was just a blast. We stayed at the Guest Suites for a week. Something like that. Suite rooms. Mr. and Mrs. Sl0cum went, along with 1 or 2 parent chaperones. It was exciting to be around so many other talented groups, I mean, just knowing they were the best of the best, you know? We heard some incredible music at that festival. Among other people, I heard this bassist, Christian McBride, who was really young, but is now really big in the jazz world. I heard him when he was small. And there were lots of big names there.
The most fun actually wasn’t the festival, however. It was what we did outside it. We played around in the rooms, ate out all the time, went to visit Amish country, stuff like that. One great memory – our director arranged for us to perform at Six Flags Great Adventures. At that time they were advertising the Great American Scream Machine, if you’re from there. 7 times upside down, or something like that.
Anyway, we went, but it started raining, so we played maybe 5 minutes. The rest of the time, we just played, baby. And it was raining so absolutely no lines, but we were kids, so who cared? We even went on the water rides. In the rain. The only ride we couldn’t do was the parachute ride because, I mean, it was raining.
So really, it was a weeklong party. And, wonder of wonders, our band won the junior high competition! The awards night was an incredible time. It was the end of a great week, we heard an incredible concert, everyone was in this one hall, and when they announced our band, total pandemonium in our section. It was incredible. We were the best junior high jazz band in the nation.
So what happens is that from each band, a Musicfest All Star is selected. They only announced the All Stars from the high school and University bands, so our director went to find out what was up, and he found out it was me! So I got this jacket and a plaque. That’s another moment I remember, because the whole year I had been like an outsider in a way, trying not to stick out, just the little 7th grader. But when I got the award, the whole band was honestly congratulating me, just a lot of good feelings all around. It was just a victorious feeling.
Anyway, that’s the straight story – I wasn’t named the best junior high school jazz pianist, I was named the Musicfest All Star on the best junior high jazz band. It’s very different.
Anyway, after that, our district was very proud, we made the news and all that. Our picture was published in Downbeat magazine (a jazz magazine) and my name was printed. Later, the same magazine did this feature on Powerhouses in Jazz Education. The university was one of those big ones, probably Berklee in Boston or USC. They were the top 2 schools when I was in junior high. Oh by the way, I also won a music scholarship. But anyway.
The high school was from East St. Louis, predominantly black, and absolutely incredible. They made a CD of the winners from Musicfest U.S.A, and this high school band’s track is incredible. Seriously, you have to hear it. Incredible speed and control, and skill. In the middle, all the saxes pick up flutes. They were that good and versatile. Our track, by the way, sucks. And they chose the one song I didn’t play on. Oh well.
Well for the junior high in this article, they featured us. This little school in San Jose, a powerhouse in music education. It sure didn’t feel like any powerhouse school, but whatever. The coolest thing was the guy writing the article called me up to interview me. Me, some scrub 12 year old, being interviewed for a magazine article. Of course, I had no idea what to say. So my interview was totally terrible. I still remember it. It was like, “So what was your experience at Musicfest U.S.A. like?” “Good.” Do you think your teachers made a difference? “Yes.”
I was a little kid, and a terrible interview. It was amazing to me how he put that together into a coherent part of the article. I wish I still had that issue.
Anyway, that was fine and dandy, but the next year, everyone in the band left except for me. So we were all new, all fresh, and expectations were high.
Anyway, 8th grade year, we started, and we just totally sucked. I mean, the band was just less talented than the year before, there was no other way to say it. And the beginning of the year; those were some tense times. For a lot of reasons. I liked Mrs. Sl0cum more, actually think she was the better musician and teacher, and it was sad to me that her year to lead, we weren’t as good. It wasn’t her, it was us, and there was some tension there, because she wanted us to be good so much. Just expectations do that. Add a lot of tension.
For me personally, it was a lot more fun, because they were all my friends that year. Yash Mehta, Theo Lam, two of my really good friends, along with Richard Schunk, and Raquel Bettencourt. That was like our posse. Oh and big Chris. We had a lot of holes that year so we had quite a few 7th graders on the band. Great fun.
Anyway, the early festivals, we were just bad and it was depressing, especially for me, given the year before. But, slowly and surely, we got better and better as the year progressed, so that, wonder of wonders, we made it to Musicfest U.S.A. again. That year it took place in Oakland, so it wasn’t as much fun. Mostly because we didn’t miss much school, and we didn’t take a roadtrip.
But we weren’t as good that year. The thing is, there were very few bands in the junior high category that year, for whatever reason. And, there was either one or maybe 2 bands that were from schools that went up to 9th grade. The thing is, Musicfest rules classified that for the junior high category, you couldn’t have anyone 14 years old on the band. So what happened was those bands were allowed to participate, but they couldn’t win. I believe this one school from Oregon fell in this category.
Anyway, what I realized was that we only had to beat maybe 2 other schools to win, and we did! 2 years in a row! It didn’t feel quite as good, since I knew it was easier, but I mean, it was still quite a feat, and we had beaten quite a few bands to get there.
I was the All star again that year, so the same deal.
So that’s the story. I wasn’t ever the best junior high jazz pianist in the country. But I was twice on the best junior high jazz band in the country. Those 2 years, seriously, were 2 of the best years of my life, and I look back on them with a lot of fondness. Because it’s the only time I worked hard with other people to get something, and gosh darn it, we got it. We were the best, we achieved all there was to achieve, and we did it in what I think were not the most advantaged circumstances. That really means a lot to me.
After that I went to Bellarmine, which had virtually no music program and unfortunately, jazz no longer became a part of my life. I actually toyed with going to Oak Grove, the public school, because of their music program, and their director actually pushed for it, but my mom would have none of that, since the education there quite frankly sucked in comparison to Bellarmine. 18 people my year from Bell got into Stanford. I don’t know if anyone came from Oak Grove. It’s sad, because it’s not that they’re less intelligent, they just have less advantages. Having gone to school with them, I really believe that.
Anyway, it’s good that I didn’t go, because some years later that same jazz director at Oak Grove was caught in some sick scandal which I don’t think I’ll go into, just suffice it to say it was sick.
And D@vis Intermediate moved on from being a jazz powerhouse as well. The Sl0cums, as I mentioned, eventually stopped doing the jazz band and just became regular teachers. Some new guy took over. And the jazz band never again even made it to Musicfest U.S.A., as far as I know. That festival might not even exist anymore. And you know, it might be a coincidence that the only 2 years I was at D@vis, we won Musicfest USA, crowned the best junior high jazz band in America. That just strikes me as an incredible coincidence. I’m being cocky, but it’s curious, no?
So you see, that’s why I say time and space came together. It was a unique time in my life, a unique time in the history of D@vis, and 2 unique groups of people that came together and made something special happen. I sometimes wonder where all those people ended up, people like B0bby Hern@ndez, R0y M1ner, Sc0tt T@ylor, Beth 0wen, Alyss@ O@nia, R0se T0rio, J0e Buckl3, Jenn@ Cling1ngsmith, and the rest. And if they’ve been involved with anything as special since.
And honestly, it depresses me a little bit, because they obviously had talent and potential, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the public school system just destroyed them. I don’t know, maybe I’ll find out. And hopefully I’m wrong, because seriously, all of those people were very special. You should have heard us. We were good.