Everything is jumpin’

Dig that crazy jive, but don’t blow your top.

Greg Corradini

Before it slipped into the obscurity of pop history, big band was infectious, subversive music that partied hard and swung harder.

Now universities, high schools and middle schools use big band ensembles as a primer in their musical curriculum.

This weekend 24 Minnesota and Wisconsin middle and high schools will perform at the Ted Mann Concert Hall as part of the University’s 2004 Jazz Festival.

Clinics will follow the concert, offering the students advice and an overview of instrumental, jazz and improvisational techniques.

But the festival’s high point is the University Jazz Ensemble 1’s showcase performance with guest saxophonist Pete Whitman.

Whitman spent most of his adolescence in Kansas City, the famed locale of jazz saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young. After moving to the Twin Cities in the late 1980s, Whitman went from world traveler as the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s tenor saxophonist to working various day jobs and rebuilding his musical base.

“I did the usual grunt work like delivering pizzas or working as a courier and then I got a job teaching at a Catholic school for a while. It took some time to get going, but after a couple years I was playing pretty regularly,” Whitman said.

This eventually led to Whitman’s current position as head of the brass and woodwinds department at Musictech College, a small school of music in St. Paul.

Jazz Ensemble 1 will be performing some of Whitman’s compositions like “Doctor Know-No,” a dodgy song reminiscent of a street brawl.

With melodic bobs and weaves, jabbing drum kicks and enough shout choruses from the horn sections to incite a dance riot, the tune gives new dimension to the word “no.”

For Kellie Nitz, the ensemble’s upright bass player and a senior performance student, playing in Jazz Ensemble 1 helped expand her ears tonally.

“I think jazz has really opened up my ear more than classical music has done. It’s just got a more upbeat energy.”

Nitz stressed that she could take different harmonic forms away from her jazz study and put them into her other music. Already working around the Twin Cities in the orchestra pits of various musical theaters, Nitz also gigs with a couple of local bands.

Other students, like junior trombone performance student Victor Barranco, just want to toot their horn.

“One of my passions in life is salsa music,” said Barranco, Jazz Ensemble 1’s second chair trombone player, with conviction.

Barranco said he does a lot of work around the Twin Cities as a freelance trombonist with different salsa bands.

“You got to pay rent, right? So you got to play your ass off. When I go out and do gigs around the Cities, the jazz ensemble is preparation for what to expect. Jazz ensemble helps train you to know how the music is to be performed so that when you do get a piece of music from a certain genre or style you know how to play it.”

The job of teaching different genres of jazz falls to Dean Sorenson, the University’s acting director of jazz studies and the director of Jazz Ensembles 1 and 2.

Sorenson said that the Jazz Festival acts as a good outreach for the University School of Music.

“It is a real good opportunity for me to be able to hear some potential incoming students and a good way to keep an eye on what is happening out in the schools,” Sorenson said.

Under Sorenson’s directing hand, Jazz Ensemble 1 learned all the pieces they will be performing before Whitman came in to rehearse with them.

Therefore, Whitman’s role in teaching the ensemble takes a different cast.

“As I’ve gotten older, I just mainly try to impart the energy of the music that I am involved with. Just try to communicate what it is supposed to feel like by trying to get them to swell or drive a phrase a certain way. Or to look at a concept loosely or differently,” Whitman said.