SAVANNAH, Ga. – Two South Florida high schools took home top honors at the Swing Central High School Jazz Band Competition & Workshop, hosted by the Savannah Music Festival April 3-5.
The jazz ensembles from Miami's New World School of the Arts and Fort Lauderdale's Dillard Center for the Arts placed first and second, respectively, out of 10 high schools from around the country.
New World School of the Arts was awarded $5,000 for its first-place finish, while Dillard received $2,500. The third-place award, and $1,000, went to Agoura High School of Agoura Hills, California.
The winning bands performed to a capacity crowd on the closing night of the festival, which featured the premiere of “Welcome to Georgia Town,” a piece commissioned by the festival and composed by jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. Dillard's jazz ensemble played Jerome Richardson's “Groove Merchant,” with trumpet player Marcus Printup sitting in; while New World School of the Arts performed with Gordon, playing his “Savannah Trails,” composed especially for Swing Central.
Dillard jazz ensemble director Christopher Dorsey said the experience was “mind blowing” for his students.
“We got a standing ovation,” said Dorsey. Of the crowd of more than 1,000, he added, “These kids aren't used to playing for that size of audience.”
To earn a place onstage, each school played three compositions for a panel of judges that included well known jazz musicians and instructors including Printup, Gordon, Rodney Jordan, Marcus Roberts, James Ketch and Jason Marsalis.
When their second-place finish was announced, “The kids were cheering, because it's the first major competition they've ever been in,” Dorsey said. “It was a beautiful experience for them, because of the interaction with the professional musicians.”
New World is more accustomed to victory, having taken home several trophies over the last several years, including top three finishes in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Essentially Ellington” competition in New York every year from 2000 and 2005.
Still, the school’s jazz ensemble director, Jim Gasior, 38, says winning was just part of what made the trip to Savannah special. “It was thrilling to be up there” on stage, Gasior said, but “there were also a lot of great educational elements to it. We heard a lot of great performances. We heard Jason Marsalis, we heard Marcus Roberts. More than anything else the kids benefit from hearing those musicians.”
Gasior said the win also stoked some regional pride.
“It was exciting representing Florida,” he said, “and it’s great that the first and second bands were from South Florida. We have a young band (at New World)
and I was proud of my students.”
Dorsey said he hopes the competition will start a winning tradition for Dillard, too.
“This is a good start for our program,” Dorsey said, adding that it shows that “the bands from South Florida are serious.”
Swing Central is an annual competition open to high school jazz programs nationwide. The three-day series of workshops and instruction are integrated into the Savannah Music Festival, and attracts noted jazz performers and educators who serve as instructors, mentors and judges. Participating schools receive a minimum $500 travel stipend, with three programs taking home larger cash awards.
The next Swing Central takes place March 25-27, 2009. Both Gasior and Dorsey say their students will be there.
And Dorsey is setting the bar high: “Oh yeah, we're gonna win first place.”
Note: The Dillard School of the Arts jazz ensemble will perform a concert on May 3rd, entitled “Sweet Dillard Jazz.”
The concert will take place at the Dillard Center for the Arts, 2501 NW 11th St, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33311. at 4 p.m. For more information, call 754-322-0838.
Photo by Frank Stewart. New World School of the Arts, above, racked up another win with a first-place finish at the Swing Central High School Jazz Band Competition & Workshop in Savannah, Ga.