SOUTH PORTLAND — “I’m a nonessential student.”
That tongue-in-cheek statement was emblazoned on pins worn by the South Portland High School Jazz Ensemble when the musicians performed at a School Board meeting in 2009, a big year for the teenage players.
The group had just taken first place among schools its size at the prestigious Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival. Before that, they had won their division at the statewide jazz competition.
Students were taking a jab at a board member who had floated the idea of listing the city’s acclaimed music program among the “nonessential programs” to have their budgets slashed in a round of budget rollbacks.
In retrospect, it was unlikely that a successful program like South Portland’s would have faced cuts, but the comment left a mark on the students and gave them something to rally around – a reason to show off all they had accomplished.
For alto saxophone player Sam Ouellette, it was a game-changer.
“We played and we blew them away,” Ouellette said in an interview last week. “That moment showed me the importance of the music program. It gives kids a way to spend their time, and outlet and something to fall back on.”
A 10-year musician, 2010 SPHS graduate and current University of Denver student, Ouellette is giving back to the music program that gave him his start with a concert called The South Portland Festival of Music at the high school at 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13.
The concert features acts with roots in South Portland from around the state and country with roots in South Portland. Headliners The Modest Proposal won the Maine Academy of Modern Music’s 2010 SLAM competition. They’ll be supported by Educated Advocates, a hip-hop duo joined by vocalist and South Portland alum Kristina Kentigan; Ouellette’s seven-member ska band, Pecan Sandies; SPHS alum, singer/songwriter Eli Noll; and solo pianist Neil Pearlman and backing band playing modern Celtic music.
Ouellette is studying management and marketing and wants to work in the business side of music. He’s been managing Pecan Sandies for about three years – booking shows, dealing with promoters, handling scheduling and pulling strings behind the scenes. He said he hoped putting on this concert will be his way of getting his feet wet with promotions beyond his own band.
Proceeds from the concert will benefit the South Portland Music Boosters, which supports music programs for students in all grades.
“The boosters did a lot for me and for all the kids,” Ouellette said. “The music program in South Portland is really competitive, and they helped a lot.”
In conversation about his music, work and school, Ouellette often brings up “networking.” He said getting to know people, whether as a musician playing a new venue or as a promoter meeting new acts, is paramount to success in the music industry.
Those skills came in handy putting on this show, and are one reason he reached out to artists with ties to South Portland. All the musicians scheduled to perform were only one or two steps removed from Ouellette.
“In this industry, networking is what it’s all about,” he said. “Every person you meet can have an impact on what you’re going to end up doing.”
Ouellette has been putting up fliers, promoting the concert online and working to get the word out via radio. Ouellette said he knows events in South Portland are sometimes hard-pressed to draw a crowd because of competition in Portland. But as of Monday, 118 people had said via Facebook that they would attend the show.
“Facebook is a joke sometimes, but I think for the most part it’s a good tell-tale sign,” he said. “But this is the first big thing I’ve ever done, so I’m trying not to get too worked up about it. I’m just going to have to wait and see.”
• WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 13.
• WHERE: South Portland High School Auditorium.
• FEATURING PERFORMANCES BY: The Modest Proposal, Educated Advocats, Pecan Sandies, Eli Noel and Neil Pearlman.
• COST: $15 or $5 with valid student ID.