The Titan Jazz & Art Festival: A Model for Others – Part I

December 13, 2016
A student vocalist performs at the festival.

A student vocalist performs at the festival.

By Brian Rollins

There may be another jazz festival where the bands work with the clinician before performing publicly on the festival stage; but if there is, I don’t know of it. At virtually every festival the bands don’t benefit from the clinician’s advice until after their stage appearance – and then they go home without applying that advice in an actual performance.

From the outset of planning, our primary thought was to create a high school jazz festival that was distinctive. At the Titan Jazz & Art Festival, which celebrated its eleventh anniversary in April 2016 at Trinity Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia, the participating bands get to apply their clinician’s advice just a few minutes later, when they take the public stage. And for those of us who have had the opportunity to observe the ensemble pre- and post-clinic, it’s always remarkable to hear how impactful that half-hour workshop has been!

Perhaps the details that follow might present you with an opportunity to create or adjust your own festival in your region along such lines.

Planning Stage

Jazz festivals for school ensembles tend toward two types: performance-based festivals, where groups perform for the general public, or clinic/workshop models, which take place in a private setting, typically consisting of a judge or clinician and perhaps a few other individuals. Our goal was to organize an event that took advantage of the benefits of each approach, focusing on these core elements:

  • Performing for and working with a skilled jazz educator in a non-competitive clinic.
  • Collaborating with other schools’ musicians and directors.
  • Performing for the festival audience on a professionally prepared stage in a festive setting.
  • Spotlighting the fine work taking place in area schools’ jazz education programs.
Pro drummer Jae Sinnett performs at the Festival.

Pro drummer Jae Sinnett performs at the Festival.

Everyone involved felt strongly that the educational component was the foremost consideration; so the first aspect we addressed was securing a clinician. In my opinion, a quality clinician is the crucial piece of the festival. We wanted an individual who was an excellent jazz musician, readily capable of demonstrating concepts via his/her own playing and/or singing. It was equally important that this individual be a gifted jazz educator, able to communicate clearly, and experienced with high school musicians and the challenges that they typically face in performing jazz. Since we decided to have a single clinician for our festival, it was important that this person be adept at addressing aspects across the entire ensemble: rhythm section, each horn section, soloists, and singers. Lastly, we wanted someone whose manner would help create a relaxed yet productive atmosphere in the clinics. We’re fortunate that our clinician, Antonio García (Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University), possesses all of these qualities in abundance. 

Most festivals bring in multiple clinicians or a new face each year. While not advocating against those ideas, I must note that Mr. García has been our sole clinician every year. The consensus among our participating directors – especially those who have attended multiple times – is that his consistent presence is one of the most appealing aspects of our festival. So, if you’re fortunate enough to have such a wonderful resource nearby, I encourage you to cultivate that relationship.

Timing

Our clinician-choice settled, we turned to the actual schedule for the event, for which we’d targeted a Saturday in April. Since we sought to include elements from both clinic-based and public performance-type festivals, the question then centered on the sequence and timing of each aspect.

It quickly became clear to us that the clinic should come first. This allows the clinician to assess and address issues that can reasonably be dealt with within the allotted clinic time, and the ensemble can then retain many if not all of these refinements in their main-stage set that follows.

Determining the schedule’s actual timeframe was a bit of trial and error. We wanted significant time in the clinics, plus a duration for the main-stage sets that directors would find showing their group to full advantage yet not so long as to require unduly amending their usual rehearsal frequency. 

Local directors agreed that the main-stage set should span 20-30 minutes, typically four to six selections. And the preceding private session should allow a given group to perform two or three selections for the clinician, followed by sufficient time for the workshop. The ideal clinic-length settled at 45 minutes: 30 minutes wasn’t enough time for a meaningful workshop, and an hour limited the number of groups able to participate in the event. A transition time of 10 minutes is enough in both settings to allow for resetting the stage to the needs of each group and even to accommodate the occasional set that runs a bit longer.

After determining the ideal lengths for the clinic and main-stage sets, however, another scheduling-challenge arose. Since the duration of the clinic and main-stage sets differ, the transition-time between the end of a group’s clinic and the start of its main-stage set keeps diminishing until eventually it becomes uncomfortably brief or even gone (as seen in Slots 4 & 5 of Example 1). 

xample-1

To remedy this, we inserted a 45-minute professional ensemble’s performance in our public venue about midway through the event. This resets the festival clock for clinic/main-stage transitions and has the added benefit of presenting jazz at the highest level to our festival audience. (See Example 2, a sample of a recent schedule.)

xample-2

 Note that Slots 8 and 9 are longer, for the host school and the festival finale respectively. I mentioned earlier that one of our festival goals was spotlighting the fine work taking place in area schools’ jazz education programs. And since this day is primarily about high school jazz, we are most fortunate that Mr. García annually assembles a jazz ensemble comprised of some of the very best high school jazz musicians from our metropolitan area. The VCU Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band has always given outstanding performances and serves as the best ambassadors for this event that I could imagine. If you have a similar ensemble available near you, I encourage considering it as your annual event-closer.

García notes that the impact on the VCU GRHSJB members is immediate and long-lasting. “Our all-regional band is just as thrilled to perform at the Festival as the various school bands are. Some students perform under the tent with their own school and then again at the end of the day with the GRHSJB, thus able to demonstrate to their home peers their ongoing collaboration with student musicians of a dozen other schools. Mr. Rollins has also annually arranged for the GRHSJB members to receive a modest paycheck for performing as the closing band of the festival. For many students, that’s their first paid gig ever. I’ve had successful alumni from ten years ago tell me how they’ll never forget their realization that day that they could actually be paid for doing something they loved.”

Atmosphere

Antonio García demonstrates stylistic phrasing for a participating band.

Antonio García demonstrates stylistic phrasing for a participating band.

To create our relaxed atmosphere for the festival, we made a number of important decisions. The first of these is that bands do not audition to participate: it’s first-come, first-served. So far this has worked fine. Some groups come almost every year; others take a year or two off. And a dialogue with our directors led to a plan that when we’ve occasionally had more requests than available spots, we invoke a rotation system so that a group that attends one year might sit out one of the following two or three years.

Directors bring their ensembles back for a number of reasons. John McAlister directs the band at The Steward School and says, “I appreciate the acceptance of my unique instrumentation, the first and foremost focus on jazz education, and the festive and professionally run outdoor performance venue. As I listen to the other groups perform throughout the day, I often take notes as to which tunes the other directors have chosen for their ensembles. Two of the six tunes I played at the festival one year I’d heard performed by other groups the previous year. I also enjoy the camaraderie with the other jazz educators and working with the terrific people at Trinity.”

Mike Boyd of The Collegiate School agrees: “The main aspect that has encouraged our participation is the sense of community we have with all of the other bands. This atmosphere does not feel competitive; we all support one another and enjoy the day for what it is: great music played by great musicians. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The clinic is another big factor, as the information given there is so helpful.”

Karl von Klein director of music at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School adds, “We appreciate the substantial time with a professional clinician, the pro sound and recording on the main stage, a performance by a professional jazz ensemble during the day, the opportunity for students and directors to hear and connect with other local jazz bands, the fine lunch, and the expense: $0!”

Jenny Ryan, director at Monacan High School, echoes that: “Is it cheap of me to say that we appreciate not having to pay a fee and yet get fed, to boot? The opportunity to play for Tony and get immediate feedback that includes demonstration from him and experimentation/correction with the kids is awesome. We also love the setting and the chance to hear other groups. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Having Mr. García annually reprise his role as clinician greatly enhances the event’s easy-going feel. He’s well known to all of the directors, and the returning participants in particular find his presence reassuring. His clinics are not adjudicated: he provides only written and verbal supportive comments. Says Ryan, “Style is always a challenge for us; and Tony does a great job explaining it, demonstrating it, and helping my kids to make little changes that make big differences.” Boyd echoes this. “Tony is the best at working with this age group. He is clear, articulate, funny, and extremely knowledgeable, which translates well on all levels to the students. He has done such a masterful job over the years in giving advice that is immediately applicable to the band. He has worked with the drummer(s) on the style of playing the ride cymbal in swing, how to play the backbeat on the snare in a funk tune, the tone of the horn-players in a traditional New Orleans song, how to correctly hold a microphone as a vocalist, how to swing as an ensemble, and more. All of this advice gets immediately taken from the workshop to the stage later that afternoon. The students don’t forget these tips, either: they stick with the band in the following years. As a director, it is always great to hear what Tony comments upon; I learn as much as the students…”

Brian Rollins received his Bachelor of Science degree from Elon University and Masters from the University of South Carolina. An NAfME member, he has taught music at Trinity Episcopal School since 1998, where the bands have been featured performers at multiple Virginia Association of Independent Schools conferences and participate actively in Virginia District 1 and All-State events.

 

Leave a Comment