RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS: Jazzing It Up

Friday, May 15, 2015, 12:06 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Image: This month's Jazz Night at East Lansing High School, where Michael Dease performed as the Draggoo family-funded visiting artist

This Sunday at 11 am, visitors to the East Lansing Art Festival can hear East Lansing High School’s Jazz Band 1 perform works by Duke Ellington, Sammy Nestico, Bobby Timmons, and more. Those who have heard this group know that, under the direction of Dave Larzelere, the ensemble’s sound is of a remarkably high quality for high school musicians.

What some may not know is that this quality is due not only to the talent and dedication of Larzelere and his students, but also to an extraordinary opportunity provided to the group every year by the Draggoo family. The Draggoo family, as part of their local philanthropy, has provided a financial gift to the school that allows Larzelere every year to bring in a professional jazz musician to work with the high school jazz musicians.

The visiting professional joins with the students for multiple rehearsals in which the pro helps to teach, and then that person also performs with the group at a concert that includes all of the district’s jazz bands: the middle school jazz bands under the director of Patty Kroth and the high school jazz bands under the direction of Dave Larzelere. (Until this year there was only one high school jazz band, but interest is now high enough that there are two at the high school: Jazz Band 1 and Jazz Band 2, with Jazz Band 1 having the more advanced musicians.)

Two years ago, the featured visiting artist was jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles, who was just named a Guggenheim Fellow. Last year, it was clarinetist Dave Bennett, who went on after his work with the East Lansing students to play “Sing, Sing, Sing” at Carnegie Hall. (Disclosure: Bennett’s performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” at the Draggoo-funded ELHS concert marked the only time this reporter has spontaneously cried in response to a musical performance.)

This year’s Draggoo artist was Michael Dease, a Grammy Award-winning jazz trombonist who, like Etienne Charles, is also faculty at MSU. At this year’s concert, Dease played not only trombone but also the euphonium, which many in the audience probably had never before heard played as a jazz instrument. As is typical with these performances, the students seemed to light up with the joy of playing with a professional, and a few got to partner in sequenced solos with Dease. The audience indicated deep (and loud) appreciation of Dease's virtuosity.

A major highlight of the concert came when Dease joined with ELHS senior trombonist Jonas Hallstein on Duke Ellington’s “Blue Cellophane.” Larzelere tells me, “Jonas has had a tremendous career at ELHS. He's been first chair in the Symphonic Band since his freshman year, played in the jazz band and symphonic orchestra, and pit orchestra all four years. Additionally, he has been awarded places in the Spartan Youth Wind Symphony, the MSBOA All-State Band and Jazz Band, and the Michigan Youth Arts Band. He's pretty much done all that can be done as a high school musician and is a special talent.” 

By providing funding to pay the professional musician for his or her time, the Draggoo family’s gift allows musicians like Jonas Hallstein an extraordinary opportunity to be mentored by a professional. But Larzelere notes it does more, occasionally also providing funds to purchase music or equipment. “Last year,” Larzelere says, “we purchased a music notation software and this year we purchased a new set of conga drums.”

According to Larzelere, “Very few high school students have an opportunity to do this,” that is, to work with a nationally-renowned jazz musician, “let alone meet them, form a relationship with them, and have access to their experience and knowledge. Each performer that has come to work with our students offers instruction and expertise with such grace and humility. This experience is quite motivating and inspiring for our students.”

Larzelere notes that this kind of mentorship is particularly important in jazz: “Jazz music is rooted in tradition. The jazz idiom is an aural tradition and an art that is best studied by listening to and experiencing great musicians. The Draggoo Family has allowed us to give that gift to our students at ELHS and gives them a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” 

He adds, “On behalf of the ELHS music department and East Lansing community, I would like to thank the Draggoos for their continued philanthropy in the arts in our community. They are wonderful and generous people and I truly appreciate their endowment!”  

Sunday’s performance by Jazz Band 1 will be Sunday at 11 am on the main stage of the Arts Festival, which is roughly where MAC Avenue meets Albert Avenue. Jazz Band 1 includes: on alto sax, Evan Dempsey, TC Gendreau, and Cassie Robbins-Castillo; on tenor sax, Josh Hall and Katie Knox; on clarinet, Olivia Akerly; on bari sax, Alex Bennett; on trumpet, Adrian Birge, Dean Coulter, Carl Geiger, Spencer Goosen, Tom Hulse, and John Lawrence; on trombone, Jonas Hallstein, Ellis Hay, Braden Hanks, Adam Mackey, and Matthew Sietsema; on bass, Arturo Pena; on guitar, Tyler Pruitt; on piano, Evan Hoopingarner; on drums, Conor McCornack; and on vibes, Scott Darios.