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The New Young Lions: U of M Youth Jazz Collective

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We’ve started a new project at the University of Manitoba. On Saturdays, a crew of really talented high school kids get together with me to develop their skills as jazz musicians—and make some great music while they’re at it.

The U of M Youth Jazz Collective is starting off as an octet: trumpet and trombone, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, piano, bass and drums. This configuration gives us the texture and timbre of a big band, but with the looseness of a small ensemble. Personally I’m having a lot of fun with it!

The musicians are Austin Dillingham (trumpet), Jeremy Hill (trombone/euphonium), Lauren Teterenko (alto), Callum Jensen (tenor), Aaron Bartel (bari), Devon Gillingham (bass), Ben Kidd (drums), and Gage Salnikowski (piano). Gage’s twin, Kerrigan, plays several instruments and cycles through different positions on the bandstand.

These kids, who are students at Vincent Massey, Transcona, Kelvin, St John’s Ravenscourt, and Linden Christian School, are enthusiastic and talented. We met four times before Christmas, and already we’re making good music.

We use the first hour to rehearse the charts. This involves working on the subtleties of the arrangement—trying to tighten up phrasing, articulation, dynamics, things of that sort. The second hour, I focus specifically on improvising. Most rehearsals don’t allow much time for developing improv skills, but I want the improvising to be at as high a level as the execution of the arrangement.

We’re using an improvisation strategy that works for any instrument. We start by creating an etude based on the piece, and memorize it. Then we learn a second, and a third. The students play them alongside a recording or with a Jamey Aebersold play-along until they’re blue in the face—that lets them internalize the fundamentals of the language. At some point, you’re gonna get tired of playing those etudes and you’ll be able to make up your own. I’m really impressed by the skills they’re developing. It’s exciting to hear, and it’s exciting for them as musicians too!

I’m so happy to have the opportunity to work with these talented kids. We are continually paving the road for the future of jazz by developing an interest in this music amongst our youth. Jazz is such a demanding art form—you have to be aware of shifts in your melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic environment at the blink of an eye, and at the same time spontaneously compose. The discipline is extraordinary, and the payback is as well. Even if they don’t end up being jazz musicians, they will have an appreciation for the music on a deeper level. They’ll be able to listen intently and really understand the language.

We’re still at the front end of this enterprise, but we’re already making plans to perform. We’ll be making the rounds at the various high schools these musicians attend, and we’re planning to play one night at The Hang. A big concert at the West End Cultural Centre with the U of M Jazz Orchestra is taking shape—stay tuned!


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