When Greg Thomas sent an audition tape of the Albemarle High School Jazz Ensemble to Swing Central last fall, he didn’t give it a second thought. He figured his group had no chance of being one of the 12 bands accepted to the elite three-day competition and workshop that are part of the Savannah Music Festival.
“The kids were super excited, so I pretended I was too,” he laughs. “But I didn’t think we’d get in.” Which is why Thomas, director of bands at AHS for 23 years, was shocked in December when he received an e-mail that began: “We are very excited that you will be a special part of the 2016 Savannah Music Festival, and we look forward to seeing you in March!”
Called the “Super Bowl of high school jazz competitions” by the Florida Sun-Sentinel, Swing Central will allow Thomas and his band [this writer’s daughter is a member] to hang with some of the best high school musicians in the country. They’ll also participate in sessions with jazz masters, including Jason Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon and Marcus Roberts, perform in Savannah’s Jazz on the River and attend shows by other festival participants ranging from Langhorne Slim and Ry Cooder to Dwight Yoakam and Dave Rawlings. On the final day, the group will compete for the prestigious Faircloth Award and a $5,000 prize.
There is, however, a hitch: Thomas needs $23,000 to send 35 young musicians to Georgia for four days.
The band recently received a Bama Works Fund grant, which, combined with money raised from a GoFundMe page and a Valentine’s Day dance, brings it within striking distance of its goal. And on Sunday, March 6, the kids are getting some help from a few talented friends: Singer-songwriter Terri Allard, trumpeter John D’earth, saxophonist Charles Owens and several other local musicians will perform a benefit concert for the AHS Jazz Ensemble at The Southern Café and Music Hall.
“What the Southern show does is demonstrate the willingness of our great community of musicians to get down on a project for our kids,” Thomas says. “These aren’t movie stars making millions of dollars; they’re musicians who work for a living, and it’s a big deal, a big contribution, when you get people like John and Charles and Terri to do a benefit for your group. They do it because in addition to being national-caliber artists, they are also incredibly committed educators.”
In Allard’s case, it’s a two-way street: Her son, Will, plays trumpet in three of Thomas’ bands, and “he feels very fortunate to participate in a program that is such a big part of his high school experience; something that has such a positive impact on his overall well-being,” she says. “As a band mom and a musician, I am thrilled to support the important work the students are doing under Greg’s leadership.”
Allard, who also hosts the long-running public television series “Charlottesville Inside-Out,” says she’s “a huge fan of John and Charles. Our musical styles are different, but our dedication to the arts is the same.”
Owens, a veteran of the New York jazz scene, is a regular in the AHS band room, showing up weekly to work with members of the jazz ensemble. D’earth, who’s been called “the Pied Piper of central Virginia jazz,” has also spent a lot of time with and written music for AHS bands. Both men have given private lessons to “too many of my students to count,” says Thomas, adding that neither D’earth nor Owens “hesitated for a second” when asked to perform in the benefit show.
“John and I have been playing together for years,” Owens says. “We inspire each other and push each other to be more creative, and when we get together we play jazz in the style of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. We also play John’s original compositions and plan to do some of those [on March 6].”
Owens says “a trip like [the one to Swing Central] can really change a person’s life for the better. This will be an unforgettable experience for the kids.”
Among those kids are musicians in the nine-member Albemarle High School Jazz Combo, which will kick off the evening at the Southern with a half-hour set. Saxophonist Cameron Fard says he’s a little nervous about opening for Allard, D’earth and Owens because “it’s kind of stressful taking the stage ahead of people who are so amazing and have been playing for decades.”
Allard’s trio, which includes harmonica player Gary Green and Sonny Layne on bass, will follow the student group, and the show will close with a set featuring D’earth, Owens, bass player Andrew Randazzo, Devonne Harris on drums and Garen Dorsey (an AHS jazz band alum) on piano.
“They are music idols to us,” says Emmet Haden, a trumpet player in several AHS bands. “It’s very humbling and incredible of them to do this for us. It’s a really great feeling to know we are a part of such a cool, generous music community.”
You can contribute to the Albemarle High School jazz band at gofundme.com/AHSJazztoSavannah.