Jackson Liberty High School Hosts a Day of Jazz

Band Director Wilbur Wittman speaks with members of the Jackson Memorial High School Jazz Band as part of a post-performance clinic program held as part of an annual day long Jazz Festival held at Jackson Liberty High School. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

JACKSON – A whole lot of jazz was heard throughout the day and into the early evening at Jackson Liberty High School.

The high school played host to jazz bands in Ocean, Monmouth and Mercer counties all day and among those bands was the award-winning Liberty Jazz Ensemble.

The day kicked off with the Jackson Middle Schools McAuliffe and Goetz competing while the afternoon was filled with bands from Ocean County and beyond.

Scott Katona, the director of the Liberty Lion Band, said that the annual event held each April involves bands that are allotted 20 minutes to perform. Within that time adjudicators (judges) score them on improvisation, dynamics, balance and much more.

“Usually bands play three songs, all different styles. Usually a swing tune, a ballad and a Latin chart,” Katona said.

“Our festival is unique as it’s not only a competition but also educational. In addition to the adjudicators scoring the bands and making comments for them to listen to later, we hire two clinicians who listen to each bands performance, then take them in a separate room afterwards and work with the group,” Katona added.

Awards for the evening included best overall section awards, (trumpet, trombone, sax and rhythm), Best Overall Soloist Awards and Best Overall Band (1st Place).

The Jackson Liberty Jazz Band is still basking in its celebration of winning the title of Cavalcade of Bands National Champions. After winning that state title, the band was the only one in New Jersey to move forward and win the Cavalcade of Bands National Championships in Souderton Pa.

Members of the Jackson Liberty High School Jazz Ensemble practice during the final hour of the Jazz Festival. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

“The Jazz Band had to compete against eight other award-winning top notch bands. In the end, Jackson Liberty had the highest score and was crowned Best Overall Band,” Katona said.

He added that the band “also won awards during that competition for Best Trumpet Section, Best Trombone Section, and Best soloist awards for Brandon Moy on guitar and George Willis on tenor sax.”

Jackson Liberty High School seniors George Willis and Brandan Moy were among the jazz ensemble members enjoying the April 21 festival. As the host of the contest, their band could not compete but that was fine with the two seniors.

Both students have been part of the band for four years and prior to that started their time performing at the middle-school level.

“This year, in particular, we have seen a lot of dedication. Everyone has given 110% and it has really paid off,” Willis said.

“It is great to meet everyone here that are part of the contest. We exchange contacts and information,” Moy said.

Trophies were available for the bands competing. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

Clinicians at the event included band leader Wilbur Wittman, well known for his musical performances throughout the state and Ocean County in particular. Gary Fienberg, a trumpet player, professor at the College of New Jersey and a jazz band director and teacher of jazz history also served as one of the four clinicians.

“We take turns doing a 25-minute clinic after they perform,” Fienberg said. “It is a busy day and lasts five hours tops but they learn a lot.”

“This is one of the greatest festivals on the east coast,” Wittman said. “They are really dedicated and they ask us a lot of questions. We get a lot of soloists here. They are always trying to work hard and improve on their soloing.”

Wittman’s long day wasn’t over after his time in Jackson. He had another festival to attend in Princeton afterward.

The event proved full circle for Kylie Weaver, who teaches music at the McAuliffe Middle School where she was once a student and was taught by Jason Diaz who was also part of the day’s program.

“It is a surreal feeling to be part of this,” Weaver said adding that she was pleased that her own students had done so well in mastering the complex language of jazz music performance. She credited Diaz and Katona who were her instructors and their hard work as band directors.

Diaz said he has been teaching music in the district for 13 years and this was his third year as a band director at Jackson Memorial High School.

He noted more interest by band members in jazz. “Jazz is getting stronger in the last seven years. It’s a very different language and students find it to be more challenging.” The instructor compared jazz to other types of music composition saying it was “like the difference between a northern and southern accent.”

Jackson Memorial High School senior Tom Perucki, a member of his school’s jazz band also started playing when he was in 7th grade. The guitar player said that the competition of the event was not the most important part of it.

“The real value is the clinicians and the hands-on experience they provide. They know the language of jazz. I’m learning jazz with their help,” Perucki said.

Katona added that he started the festival years ago for the educational experience. “I don’t announce individual scores nor give band ratings because everyone performing is doing the best they can and I want them to feel appreciated,” he said.

“There are best overall awards to congratulate those who exhibited the best performance that day but every band goes home feeling like they are winners,” Katona added.

Winners of the day featured the category of Best Overall Jazz Bands that went to Red Bank Regional and Jackson Memorial. Espirit De Corps Awards went to Toms River South and Hamilton West while individual Soloist awards included members from Toms River South, Red Bank Regional and Jackson Memorial.