Jazz band at Portland High School plays simply for the fun of it

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PORTLAND — Jazz is a uniquely American form of music known for encouraging musicians to experiment and improvise while working together to create a coherent whole.

“Jazz is a very egalitarian genre,” said Jayne Sawtelle, the music teacher at Portland High School, who this school year has helped interested students start a new jazz band.

“We play together and experiment with each tune, and it’s an equal sharing of ideas and soloing,” Sawtelle said.

That’s what brought freshman Topher Kavookjian to the group.

“Playing jazz allows me to go into different zones and create,” he said. “It’s experimental in a way that no other genre (of music) really is.”

Kavookjian plays the guitar and was just accepted into the Allstate Honors Jazz Band, which, Sawtelle said, “is a really big deal.”

The band also has two horns, a sax and a trombone, as well as a drummer, a bassist and someone who both sings and plays the violin. In addition, along with directing, Sawtelle often plays piano with the group. 

She said the members are mostly freshmen and sophomores, and one senior, “who just really like jazz and like working in a small, flexible group.”

Sawtelle said the band is currently using tunes from the “Real Book,” which is a book of just melodies and chords, also called lead sheets, that working jazz musicians use to play together without much rehearsal.

She said “the books have just about every jazz song in the idiom and there are many different versions and editions” of each song, which keeps it interesting.

“Right now we are working on ‘Girl from Ipanema,’ ‘Blue Bossa,’ ‘Autumn Leaves,’ ‘All of Me,’ and ‘Lady Bird,'” Sawtelle said. “The students play or sing the melody, then improvise over the jazz chords as the drums, bass and guitar keep time.”

“Lady Bird” was written by Tadd Dameron around 1939 and first released in 1948. It’s believed to be one of the most performed tunes in modern jazz, according to the Learn Jazz Standards website. And “Blue Bossa,” written by Kenny Dorham, is one of the first tunes that many jazz musicians learn.

Many jazz bands and vocal groups at other high schools, particularly in southern Maine, work toward taking part in the jazz festival season in late winter and early spring.

But Sawtelle said the new jazz band at Portland High wouldn’t be participating in any competitions.

“I firmly believe that music should be collaborative, not competitive,” she said. “We are hoping to get gigs sometimes, and might participate in a festival to get some expert feedback, but not for scores or trophies.”

The band’s first public performance was playing the dinner set as people were arriving for the annual Alumni DHS/PHS dance at the Italian Heritage Center on Nov. 23.

“Carmine Terraciano’s band was the featured music for the dance, and he asked us to play. It was a lot of fun, and the kids did a great job,” Sawtelle said. The group will also entertain guests as they arrive at Portland High’s annual winter concert on Dec. 11.

“We are also looking at area coffee shops for possible venues,” Sawtelle said. “The Apohadion Theater is willing to have us come play there, and we would like to do that once we have a set prepared. I am also interested in First Friday events downtown and Third Thursday events in Woodfords Corner.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The new jazz band at Portland High School rehearses a couple times a week and is hoping to be invited to play at local venues and school functions.

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