Arts & Culture

Friends University Jazz Fest puts the focus on young musicians

Edmond Jazz Orchestra will play Saturday night at the Friends University Jazz Fest.
Edmond Jazz Orchestra will play Saturday night at the Friends University Jazz Fest. Courtesy photo

For hundreds of area students, the annual Friends University Jazz Festival is a place to hear and be heard.

As usual, this year’s festival showcases out-of-town acts headlining concerts Friday and Saturday at Sebits Auditorium. The University of North Texas Vocal Jazz Ensemble performs Friday, and the Edmond (Okla.) Jazz Orchestra performs Saturday.

But much of the action takes place earlier Friday and Saturday, in rehearsal halls around the Riney Fine Arts Center as well as Sebits. About 850 middle school, high school and college students make up 38 bands who will play in sessions free to the public.

“Some people come only to hear their kids play,” said Lisa Hittle, director of jazz programs at Friends. “Some people come and stay the whole day. It’s all open to the public all day long.”

Typically, the bands perform three or four songs, then hear a critique of their playing and work on various parts with “clinicians” — professional musicians and teachers not affiliated with their school.

“Then they go watch other bands perform and get their critiques,” Hittle said. “It sets up a really great learning environment.”

Randy Crow, band director at Maize Middle School, is bringing 40 students in two bands to the festival, one mostly consisting of sixth-graders and the other of seventh- and eighth-graders.

The older group will perform a number called “Feather Report” — a reference to the well-known jazz fusion group Weather Report — and two more songs.

“They’re a really good group, so they’re playing kind of high school stuff,” Crow said. “It’s a very tough piece, kind of a funk piece. It’s pretty cool.”

Crow said it isn’t usually a love of jazz music that initially draws students to the bands. “Mostly it is ‘well, we want to do this because we know it’s select.’ Then it exposes them to (jazz), and the kids like that. I would say pretty much all of the kids are getting exposed to something they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise. A few might have parents and family that listen to it.”

Because jazz is played “totally different” from typical concert band music, there’s a learning curve involved, Crow said.

“They’ll definitely get their eyes opened if they get a chance to see the older groups.”

Dane Danielson, director of bands at Goddard High School, is bringing 25 students who make up its jazz ensemble. About 40 kids in Goddard’s seventh- and eighth-grade ensembles will also participate.

“It’s cool to be in the college venue and have judges from across the Midwest and country come in and talk to them,” Danielson said. “This is kind of a staple of our program. It gives us kind of a direction to work on.”

The high school group plays five concerts a year and also attends festivals in McPherson, Hutchinson and Pittsburg. At Friends, the high school group will perform “Pick Up the Pieces,” a funk hit from the 1970s, along with a swinging version of “St. Louis Blues.”

“The clinicians will get them excited, tell them things they did well, things they can change,” Danielson said. “The kids usually walk away from the performance feeling pretty good about themselves.”

Hittle said she has purposely kept the festival from turning into any kind of competition.

“I want the total focus to be on education,” she said. “If you started putting competitive elements in there, my feeling is it takes away from that.”

Lee Rucker, who conducts the Edmond Jazz Orchestra, is serving as one of the clinicians.

Rucker said his 19-piece band is made up of alumni of Central Oklahoma State University’s jazz program. “It’s big band jazz music,” he said of the group’s repertoire. “We’ll do some things by (Count) Basie, (Duke) Ellington. We’re doing a couple of pieces from Stan Kenton, which I thought was appropriate since he was born in Wichita.”

Rucker said he looks forward to working with younger musicians when not performing. He’ll try to impart not only how to play the music, but “how to listen to the music, how to practice playing the music better,” he said. “Just keep it pretty simple.”

23rd annual Friends University Jazz Festival

Where: Riney Fine Arts Center and Sebits Auditorium, Friends University

When: University of North Texas Vocal Jazz Ensemble at 7:30 p.m. Friday; Edmond Jazz Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Saturday; school band performances take place from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday and 10:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: Concert tickets are $9 for adults, $6 seniors and students. Student performances are free; or 316-295-5677.