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Why I play: Fossil Ridge High School musicians reflect on the future of jazz

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Fossil Ridge High School Jazz Ensemble 1 takes the stage at the UNC-Greeley Jazz Festival. For those in the ensemble, jazz is more than just music — it's a way of life.
Photo: Cormac McCrimmon, Rocky Mountain PBS

GREELEY, Colo. — Theo Flake can’t imagine a life without music.

“After school I go home, finish homework, but then it’s just practice. I don’t play video games or anything. It’s just practice and more practice and have fun and play,” Flake said. “Without it, I don’t think I would be nearly as happy as I am. I don’t think I would see my life through the same lens.”

Flake is the lead alto saxophone in the Fossil Ridge High School Jazz Band in Fort Collins. Last week, his ensemble joined hundreds of other high school and middle school groups at the 54th annual University of Northern Colorado (UNC) Jazz Festival.

The festival began as a one day event in 1970 with performances from just a handful of local schools. Then in 1976, world-renowned jazz musician, Gene Aitken, joined the faculty at UNC. He launched a high school invitational jazz series that now attracts thousands of musicians for three days of performances and workshops each spring. Young musicians earn the opportunity to play alongside world-class artists and receive feedback from university-level music professors who listen to each performance.

Colorado Voices

High school musicians reflect on the future of jazz

In addition to passing down knowledge and inspiring young artists, the event — the largest of its kind in the nation — testifies to the constant evolution of jazz, students said. 

It’s the second day of the festival and instrument cases litter the floor of the Campus Commons. Saxophone notes waft from the performance hall, cutting the chill of a late-spring snow storm. 

Flake and his fellow musicians take the stage at 10:00 a.m. A blue spotlight bounces off the cymbals. The anticipation is the hardest part, said Shane Abrahamson, who plays bass in the band. 

“I’m standing up there. The tension is building. The question is, can you trust yourself and your time spent practicing the music to know you can just do it,” he said. 

Hannah Peterson, the Fossil Ridge jazz director, waves her arms and the tune gallops away. The group plays four pieces. The first is “Spain,” a staple jazz arrangement composed by Chick Corea and arranged by Paul Jennings. 

The ensemble falls into rhythm and muscle memory takes over.

Hannah Peterson gives a soloist his cue.
Photo: Cormac McCrimmon, Rocky Mountain PBS

“I'm listening to people. I'm feeling the music. I’m reacting. I’m adjusting. There's a certain liveliness in jazz that just makes you feel more alive when you're playing it,” Abrahamson said.

At a time when high school students face incessant pressure to perform — from standardized testing to college admissions — jazz provides a breath of fresh air for the students in the Fossil Ridge band.

“In classical music, there's this idea that everything has to be perfect. You spend hours in a practice room, workshopping this and perfecting this, and working on this. And by the time that's done, people come out with injuries and mental disorders. It's really bad,” Flake said.

“But in jazz, there's this idea, this concept that it doesn't have to be perfect. It's jazz — you can make it up,” he said. 

For years, people have lobbed grim diagnoses upon genre. In 2017, Nielsen reported that jazz music made up only 1% of total music consumption. Nonetheless, the Fossil Ridge students say the music is here to stay. 

“Jazz isn’t dying. Jazz is moving to a different style of music. Classical music didn’t die. It had its peak, and then it moved into something else,” said Abrahamson. 

“Nowadays there are producers at electronic workstations who can just tap a note on a keyboard and create music, and so, music is getting a lot more interesting, a lot more weird,” said Flake.

The rhythm section works to keep the rest of the band in sync.
Photo: Cormac McCrimmon, Rocky Mountain PBS

While not all jazz listeners appreciate such deviations from tradition, the genre maintains a powerful ability to bring people together.

“If I can like jazz as an 18 year old, then I can also relate that with someone who's a lot older than me, who also likes jazz, because it's been around for so long. It's a really emotional medium that you can make relationships with,” said Eli Williams, a saxophone player in the ensemble.

After their performance, students met with instructor Tina Raymond, the director of Jazz Studies at California State University Northridge, to learn how they can improve.

Raymond counts the group off at measure three. A second later, she waves her hand.

“Beat two is long, right? Right now we’re playing it short.” she said.

Raymond sings the beat.

“All of these details are so important. And especially on a tune like “Spain,” where every jazz musician ever knows this line,” she said. “You’ve got to nail it. Try it again. One, two, one, two. Ready and go.” 

Jazz requires constant give and take among each member of the band. Raymond explains that the rhythm section must help the rest of the band stay in sync. At the same time, they can’t overwhelm soloists with their sound. Each member must listen and build off of what the others do. It’s a skill that takes time to develop, but one that extends far beyond the practice room. 

“Jazz in particular, really, it makes you open up your ears and listen to everybody else,” said Ben Safford, who plays guitar. “I think that's really important because in my opinion, I think we don't listen to each other enough.”

After the performance, Tina Raymond, a guest clinician, directs the students during a feedback session.
Photo: Cormac McCrimmon, Rocky Mountain PBS

At one point in the clinic, Raymond looked directly at Abrahamson.

“Bass, I don’t know if you know how important you are to this band,” she says. “Do you know how important you are?”

Abrahamson lost his words.

“You’re so deeply, deeply important. You’re really driving the bus of this entire ensemble, and we need you to play like you know that. So turn up, please, quite a bit, and be really precise with these quarter notes,” Raymond said.

Later, Raymond, a drummer herself, swaps in to emphasize her point. She’s exact in her notes and her feedback.

“There’s definitely been years where I didn’t find it as helpful as I found it this year,” said Nix Peters, reflecting on the workshop. “She talked about what we can do to get to the next level rather than just being like with this specific music, you can do these things because we are not going to be playing this music as much anymore.”

Peters plans to continue playing music throughout high school and beyond. This summer they will play with the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps in Denver.

“Most kids that are performing today will not continue with jazz or not continue with music even. But if they [the clinicians] can inspire just a few people to continue, it’s a really positive thing for the entire music world and especially the jazz world, as I think people are worried about jazz dying,” said Safford.

Peters believes music is more supportive than other activities, like sports they played as a kid, where social status can depend on performance.

“I've done other sports or other activities when I was little. And it's like when you aren't successful, most of the time they aren't super nice about it. But in music settings, everybody's super supportive,” they said.

For members of the Fossil Ridge ensemble, that community is the ultimate prize.

“It's the thing that I wake up at 7:30 in the morning to do, go play with these people that I barely know,” said Flake. “But by the time the jazz band is done, I know every single detail about these people because I've been connected to them through the language of jazz.”

Cormac McCrimmon is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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