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When the Thunder Mountain Jazz Band took the stage on the night of Feb. 2, high school junior Katelin Kalbaugh was excited. At their sound check earlier in the day, they played with guest trumpeters Dale Curtis and Walt Simonsen for the first time. When the students and professionals played that first chord, “we were all together,” Kalbaugh said in amazement. “It was really nice.”
Collaborating with music masters: Alaska students embrace the Sitka Jazz Festival 020718 AE 1 H.W. Murphy, For the Capital City Weekly When the Thunder Mountain Jazz Band took the stage on the night of Feb. 2, high school junior Katelin Kalbaugh was excited. At their sound check earlier in the day, they played with guest trumpeters Dale Curtis and Walt Simonsen for the first time. When the students and professionals played that first chord, “we were all together,” Kalbaugh said in amazement. “It was really nice.”

Gary Pratt directs the All Alaska Jazz Band at the 23rd year of the Sitka Jazz Festival. Photo by Bobbi Jordan | For the Capital City Weekly


Jenny Kellogg performs with the Sitka High Jazz Band at the 23rd annual Sitka Jazz Festival, held the first weekend of February. Photo by Bobbi Jordan | For the Capital City Weekly


Students Trevor Pierce (Thunder Mountain High School), Terran Stack and Adrian Ronquillo (both from Ketchikan High School) get voice instruction from Michael Mayo during the 23rd Sitka Jazz Festival. Photo by Bobbi Jordan | For the Capital City Weekly


The Sitka High School Jazz Band performs at the 23rd Sitka Jazz Festival during the first weekend of February. Photo by Bobbi Jordan | For the Capital City Weekly


Kyle Athayde, Mark Ferber, Sam Minaie and Bob Athayde instruct students in Saturday clinics during the 23rd Sitka Jazz Festival. Photo by Bobbi Jordan | For the Capital City Weekly

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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Story last updated at 2/7/2018 - 2:08 pm

Collaborating with music masters: Alaska students embrace the Sitka Jazz Festival

When the Thunder Mountain Jazz Band took the stage on the night of Feb. 2, high school junior Katelin Kalbaugh was excited. At their sound check earlier in the day, they played with guest trumpeters Dale Curtis and Walt Simonsen for the first time. When the students and professionals played that first chord, “we were all together,” Kalbaugh said in amazement. “It was really nice.”

After a day filled with rehearsals and clinics, Kalbaugh’s band took the stage to show off their hard work and perform with their guests. “It has been really fun and such a great experience,” Kalbaugh said, beaming.

In its 23rd year, the Sitka Jazz Festival brings around 200 kids like Kalbaugh from across Alaska to Sitka to practice, collaborate and learn about jazz music. They join a highly curated group of professional, world-class musicians who travel from across the United States to the festival to perform and teach.

“We’re here — doing jazz — for three, four days,” Mike Kernin, the Festival Director, said. “Unlike other performances, if the kids want to interact, everything is face to face. The level of depth is a lot stronger.”

The students’ days are filled with music. They attend concerts and rehearse with their bands, including the All Alaska Jazz Band, for which some of the attendees successfully auditioned. They attend clinics, choosing from 30 different offerings, including instrument-specific workshops and master classes. Other clinics covered a wide range of topics, from how to take care of your instrument to incorporating improv and jam sessions. The students seemed captivated in these workshops, focused on the instructor and engaged with their peers.

In Ed Littlefield’s clinic, “Developing a Musical Ear,” it was standing room only and all eyes were on Littlefield, a freelance musician and former high school music director with a long and impressive resume. As they sang notes, he paced the room, listening intently to how well the students could match his tone.

“Watch with your eyes. Watch with your ears,” he said. “What did you feel? Why does that note feel so strong? What happened to your face when you sang that note? Make sure you can hear people across the room. Blend into their voices.”

Students answered his questions and laughed with him. He recalled many of their names and held their full attention.

An experience like that is what makes the festival special for its participants. Unlike other settings, the professional musicians who participate are engaged and readily available.

“Students have access to the artists,” Kernin said. “There are clinics all day, lessons, open rehearsals and lots of extra little things.”

The professionals, who have played all over the world, are there to teach and perform — not to judge. A spirit of collaboration and sharing permeates festival events. Nowhere is that feeling more prevalent then when students take the stage at the Performing Arts Center alongside the professionals they’ve learned from, and perform for their peers and guests. It’s a celebration of music and this gathering of so many people who love music.

“I like the concerts best because you get to see what everyone’s been preparing,” Sitka senior Alex Winger said. “It’s amazing to see what other people are capable of,” fellow Sitka senior Leah Christner added.

Avery Voron, a Sitka junior, said, “I like having professionals play with us. You can hear the difference. It sounds amazing.”

In between clinic sessions, a group of Juneau-Douglas High School kids sat around a table in the Sitka High School commons, talking and looking over the rest of the day’s schedule while a host of saxophonists practiced in the background. Karl Tagaban, a trumpet and trombone player who graduated last year, is back at the festival, chaperoning for his high school. The students around him all agreed: “The best part is getting to hear the professionals. They are all amazing.”

Festival Director Kernin works hard to keep the quality very high.

“I look for people with certain personalities that are a good fit. People who perform at a very high level, and have some experience with kids,” he said. Creating that right balance of big names, proven educators and passionate musicians takes time and effort.

“I start working on next year’s festival in two weeks,” he said.

Kernin has been with the festival in various roles from the very beginning, when it was simply one performer giving a concert. Over 23 years, he’s seen it grow to a guest artist playing with the band, then inviting other schools, then adding improv classes and two or three clinics, to what it is today. This year, around 135 students traveled to Sitka for the event, including jazz bands from Fairbanks, Anchorage, Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau.

They ferry and fly into Sitka. Some stay with local families; others stay in hotels or on the campus of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. Many enjoy reconnecting with other students from Alaska they’ve played with before. All come to be inspired.

This year, the group of professionals that were doing the inspiring is young, talented and excited. They’ve performed at the White House, attended the Grammy awards, owned music studios and toured and worked all over the world with the biggest names in jazz music. Most were under 30.

“They are making music at a really high level but they are not 80,” Kernin said. “It’s good to show the kids you don’t have to be a certain age to be a master.”

One of the masters, pianist/composer/band leader Josh Nelson, wrapped up his clinic “Solo Piano Techniques and Methods” with a handful of attentive students on the stage of the Performing Arts Center. He paused his instruction and verbalized the spirit of the festival to the group.

“Thank you for playing,” he said. “Stay in touch if you want further advice. Record your solo and send it to me if you’re looking for feedback. I would love that.”

H.W. Murphy is a writer and veteran who loves to explore, currently based in Sitka.