Dallas — A seven-member jazz combo swings away in the rehearsal space, horns deftly trading the familiar melodies of “Pure Imagination” by Bricusse and Newley. The flow is broken by the instructions of the director, speaking the universal language of jazz music, “It’s beedle-dee, beedle-dee, bom. Put more emphasis on the ’bom’.” Pencils fly to mark the charts and instructions are carried out.
In the green room, another entire set of horn players warms up and tunes, cramming last-minute practice in before the rehearsal starts. A glorious cacophony of inventiveness hoots through the entire building, otherwise empty on this Sunday afternoon. A day in the life of the bran-new Jazz Program of the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra.
Kris Berg, the Director of the Jazz Program and conductor of the program’s big band Jazz Orchestra finds an empty office that will give some shelter from the random mix of noise. “It’s an occupational hazard,” he says in unnecessary explanation with an apologetic smile. Then he settles down to talk about his most passionate interests, jazz and youth jazz orchestras.
Berg is no stranger to either, having played bass since the age of 16 himself. Raised in St. Louis, self-dubbed Home of the Blues, he moved to University of North Texas for their jazz program and then worked for 27 years as the director of Jazz Studies at Plano College. Until his recent working retirement. “I had settled down to a busy life of composing and playing with my own jazz band [the award winning Metroplexity Big Band] when I heard about the plans for the Jazz Program at GDYO. The fit was too good for me to pass up, so I auditioned and here we are.”
The new Jazz Program has just completed its first season. On Wednesday, the program was awarded its first National Endowment for the Arts Grant, for $15,000.
“There was a program in the past,” Berg explains,’ but it didn’t work out. Then it was mostly a lot of small combos. This is the first time the GDYO has established a unique Jazz Orchestra in their umbrella. We also have the jazz combo. For now, there is a lot of overlap between the two groups, but ultimately, we will have separate players in each. That will help control the amount of rehearsal that any of the kids are doing at once and also give each group a lot more flexibility.”
The Jazz Orchestra is a concept that stands out in the region. “A lot of the jazz groups in the High Schools are set up like concert bands or big combos. They play very good music and the training for the players coming in is good, but the Big Band format is very useful for young players. It teaches them ensemble while allowing all the flow and improvisation of jazz. There are similar youth Jazz Orchestras in other areas—Nebraska for instance and Tulsa, OK. But we are the only one available in Greater Dallas and that has been a big attraction.”
At this point, the combo has finished its practice and we are joined by the other half of the artistic team, Alex Fraile, who directs the small group. He is an Alto Saxophonist hailing from Barcelona, Spain. He too arrived in the area for UNT’s extraordinary jazz program and somehow became a Texan. His vision for the Program is ultimately having ore small combos, all independent from the Orchestra in programming and personnel. “I think the rage of small groups will present a more complete vision. We will have everything that any jazz performer in the area could want.”
Kris Berg readily agrees, adding that the overarching vision is that all groups across the board will be at the same level of excellence. “We will have no ‘beginner groups’ in the Program. We don’t want to have a mismatch between say the rhythm sections and less experienced horns, because that won’t serve anyone well.”
Both men have been astonished by the quality of the players coming in, even in the early stages of the Jazz Program. “Almost all of the players have had extensive private instruction in jazz,” says Berg. “Then schools like Frisco, Plano, Lewisville and others have very good bands themselves. We’ve helped the kids along by providing Master Classes where we can. Our hope is to have a lot more of those throughout the year.”
Fraile agrees about the quality. “Our kids are incredible. For instance, our trumpet section may be the best section I have ever worked with.”
The main limitation this year has been awareness of the Program in the community. This year, for the twenty-member Big Band they only had 40 auditions. “However,” Berg points out, “most of them were All-State on their instruments, so we had an incredible pool to choose from.”
Besides the quality from working with All-State level musicians, the Program benefitted from word-of-mouth. “We filled our core from the auditions,” says Fraile. “Then, they sort of called their friends and told them this was worth looking into. We picked up our drummer, Aaron, that way and he’s been great.”
As if on cue, two of the student musicians pop in to check on rehearsal notes. Noah Rodriguez, a tenor trombonist from Frisco relates how great the experience has been through this first year of the Jazz Program. “The audition was no big deal. They made me feel very comfortable. But the music has been challenging.” He is highly accomplished, having been matched with his instrument at a musical “petting zoo” before sixth grade. He knew right away that he was interested in jazz, particularly the blues and swing. “Jazz is more exciting and upbeat,’ he says. “And it has a lot more solo opportunity. I play in combos with some of the other guys in the group, you know, for small gigs and things, but playing in the Big Band [and the small combo] have taught me so much about the music and how to listen to these other great players.” Noah plans to go to college at Texas A&M or Florida to study mechanical engineering, with a jazz minor. “Engineering will be my career,” he says with all the assurance of an eighteen year old with the future squarely ahead, “but jazz is something that I will always have.”
In contrast, tenor sax player Devin Foster is firmly set on pursuing advanced studies in jazz. He is enrolling at UNT in the fall. For him, the Jazz Program has been both a learning and affirming activity. “I always wanted to play jazz. My father is a Saxophonist himself. I think jazz lets me be free and express my emotions, plus it gives me the chance to be weird and quirky.” Like Noah, Devin has been in jazz bands through school and All State for all of High School. “But the groups [in GDYO’s Jazz Program] feel more professional.” He says. “I think I am learning a lot about the music and what it will take to play on a career basis.”
As the directors settle back into the interview, Kris Berg comments on how great a boon working within the GDYO umbrella has been for the young Jazz Program, not so much for exposure to great musicians (“Most of the jazz performers are already specialized by high school. We don’t see a lot of classical performers cross over,” explains Fraile). The major advantage so far has been in the organization. “All we have to do is show up and teach jazz. Everything else, from rosters to set up are done for us by our Manager, Ashley Cox,” says Berg.
He also points to the advantage that being a part of GDYO affords in terms of fund raising. “We are playing a few pieces at the TACA kick off luncheon later this week. It’s great that the Program already will have its name out there. And both the Board and the patrons of the GDYO are completely behind the program.”
And for the future of the Jazz Program? Not only is the hope to expand the Orchestra and combos through auditions. “I hope that all the ensembles in the program are innovative,” says Kris Berg, before heading off to start the rehearsal for the Big Band. “I already compose pieces for the group and hope to introduce at least one new one a year. But I’d love to see a new piece commissioned yearly form some of the great jazz composers that are out there today. In addition, we’re working to bring jazz greats, like [trumpeter] Sean Jones and Australian James Morrison, to play with the Orchestra at our concerts.”
With that, he transitions from cheerleader to bandleader. Working each line of the horns (and the small rhythm section, he crafts the complex meshwork of an arrangement of Pat Metheny’s “Every Summer Night.” At last, the pieces (sans drummer—Aaron has called in sick) fit together and the Big Band sails in a rich and melodious tone, joy and exuberance pouring out of every instrument.
» The first season for the GDYO Jazz Program has ended; and the final GDYO concert is 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19 at the Meyerson Symphony Center. It features guest artists, the Plano Civic Chorus and soprano Rainelle Krause, on a program that includes Poulenc’s Gloria.