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The National Jazz Festival for High School Students Is Launching In Philadelphia

Lynn Irving
Students preparing for the National Jazz Festival in Philadelphia

WRTI's Susan Lewis talks with Joe Bonjiovi, founder and executive director of the National Jazz Festival about why jazz is so important for young people. Young jazz musicians from 11 states and Puerto Rico are coming to Philadelphia for the 2020 festival on February 15th, which features 63 ensembles of high school-age musicians in different categories. 

Joe Bonjiovi, in addition to spearheading the launch of the first National Jazz Festival, is also director of the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra and the Princeton High School Studio Band, and current president of the New Jersey Association of Jazz Educators.

It's clear he's passionate about jazz and keeping it as a strong part of music education in schools across this country. Why? Here's an edited transcript of his conversation with WRTI's Susan Lewis:

Why do you think it's important to have a National Jazz Festival?

Number one is the sharing of music and cultures within our country. This year we have 11 states and territories represented all the way from Puerto Rico, Chicago, Florida, Maine. Everybody's coming into Philadelphia for this. 

Different parts of our country have different flavors and that also comes across in music and in music education. But the underlying theme is jazz. And it might be played a little bit different in Puerto Rico than it is in Chicago or definitely in Maine. And the kids get an opportunity to not only share the music with each other, but to interact and talk to each other and, and exchange information and make friends from all over the country.

So there's a festival, where they have an opportunity to perform, and a competition as well?

Yes, everybody gets to perform. Some groups can be non-competitive, but most of the groups do choose to be in a competitive division. They get to perform throughout the day. There're also clinics and masterclasses throughout the day.

And then in the evening, everybody will meet in the Terrace Ballroom at the Pennsylvania Convention and the US Army Jazz Ambassadors will come in and do a performance. And then we will start our award ceremony.

So jazz is an art form that that is uniquely American and has been going on for a century.  And it's evolved in the way it's played. How do these high school students in 2020 respond to this music?

It's amazing, actually. They respond exceedingly well. Our festival features small combos, which is primarily what's taken over these days in New York in terms of clubs, trios and quartets. And then we also have large, big band ensembles back to the Glenn Miller, Stan Kenton, Count Basie age. And then we have everything in between.

The big band is now taking on a bit of a more contemporary flavor, particularly with artists like Snarky Puppy, which is not typically a big band, but has a large ensemble with rhythm section and many horn players.

And we're particularly proud of the vocal aspect. Vocal jazz has expanded over the last, I would say 10 to 20 years, particularly in the schools, where a lot of schools are starting to have vocal jazz ensembles, which is different than their regular choir class. It's a different harmony, a different singing style. It's upholding the traditions of Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, although also giving you the contemporary flavors of Esperada Spalding.

What does exposure to jazz teach students? There's a musical component in that, playing jazz is really learning about the structure of music and creating music. And it also gives you a glimpse in time of a certain part of our history and culture.

Yes. The nice thing about jazz is you get to learn the history and the structure, and the harmony, but then you get to bend it and manipulate it any way you want to express yourself. And it's okay to make mistakes. It's okay to try new things.

And some people are going to get it and some people aren't. But either way, you're learning in the process and you're learning from the masters, but you're also allowed and encouraged to push it forward.

So you're learning about music and you're learning about yourself. Do you have any stories about the power of jazz or the power of learning to improvise?

Well learning to improvise is the essence of jazz. And improvisation really is a composition without the time to sit down and put it on paper. And it's also a composition of what you're feeling right then. And just like in a real conversation with somebody, especially if you're passionate, you might say the wrong thing at the wrong time, but you get to say it again and again until you get it right.

So the improvisation and the thinking on your feet and being able to express yourself in the moment emotionally and musically translates to growing as people and being able to understand situations that you're in and adapt and be able to express yourself and, and feel good about yourself in the end.

What does jazz mean to you personally? What role has it played in your life?

It's taken me places that I never thought, particularly in the jazz education world. It is such a natural musical expression that I find it hard to believe that it such a struggle to keep it going. A lot of that I think it's cloaked in a bit of misunderstanding from people who just literally just don't understand. And not for lack of trying.

But for me, jazz personally has led me to meet people all around the world, share ideas with people around the world. And then it led me to understanding how important it is in a child's music education and which is why we ended up creating this festival to help students still have that ability and to bring it to Philadelphia.

Philadelphia has a very supportive jazz clientele, from the jazz clubs to stations like yours playing music. And then you have the people who are willing to go to concerts, people who are willing to help fund things like this. And people who want to see young people do great things. And I think Philadelphia is the perfect spot at this time for something like this to happen.

So you've been teaching and directing jazz bands. What's the been the most satisfying thing for you when you work with these students?

Seeing them connect with each other, and not -- and this is, this might be surprising - not just musically, particularly, not just musically.

I've seen over my teaching career, kids who had all sorts of problems, in terms of social economic problems, deaths in the family or losing students along the way, and seeing the community that jazz provided them for support, in and out of their ensemble, in and out of their school, and throughout their community.

It's been amazing. So it brings everybody together. And when things become very important and very real in life, the jazz community tends to pull together and support people through it.

Is it possible to summarize the goal or the mission of this festival?

The mission is simple, is to, to keep jazz education a primary focus in our national school systems.

What is the, your hope that the student students will take away from this?

I'm hoping that the students will have the ability to share their work, and to feel good and get some great constructive feedback from professionals and educators in the jazz industry that will help inspire them to keep going and inspire them to lead ensembles, inspire them to write and perform.

We do have a jazz composition portion* of the National Jazz Festival. And the student who won (Joseph Lim from Edgemont High School)  is a freshman from New York. He wrote a piece that, if it were published today, I would buy it. It's that good.

It's incredible what these kids can do.


*Winners of the National Jazz Festival 2020 Composition Competition: 

1st Place - Joseph Lim - Edgemont High School - New York; 2nd Place - Colin Eng - Centennial High School - Maryland;  3rd Place - Sudhansh Kumar - Princeton High School - New Jersey

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.