Mount St. Mary Academy plays it cool at high school jazz fest

by PATRICK J. BUECHI
Tue, Feb 2nd 2016 11:00 am
Staff Reporter
Gabrielle Phillips, Emily Deacon, Abby Skakal and Emma Mack, members of the Mount St. Mary Academy Jazz Ensemble, run through the set list for the Jazz Fest concert at Banchetti by Rizzo's in Amherst. The Kenmore school has the only all-girl jazz band in Western New York. (Patrick J. Buechi/WNYC Staff)
Gabrielle Phillips, Emily Deacon, Abby Skakal and Emma Mack, members of the Mount St. Mary Academy Jazz Ensemble, run through the set list for the Jazz Fest concert at Banchetti by Rizzo's in Amherst. The Kenmore school has the only all-girl jazz band in Western New York. (Patrick J. Buechi/WNYC Staff)

Mount St. Mary Academy teamed up with area schools in the spirit of jazz. Three Catholic high schools and three public high schools played on the same bill at a jazz festival at Banchetti by Rizzo's, Saturday, Jan. 30, beginning at 6 p.m.

Mount St. Mary's, along with St. Francis, Canisius, Springville, Orchard Park and Sweet Home high schools will take to the stage to show and share their chops with each other.

Mount St. Mary's has been conducting jazz fests for about five years, often working with the St. Francis students. The concerts used to be held in Mount St. Mary's auditorium, but John Hathaway, director of Instrumental Music at Mount St. Mary Academy, wanted his kids to experience a professional setting - the nightclub.

"A number of years ago, I said there has got to be a better method than what we're doing. We'd like to have the kids get a feel for what it's like to play in a nightclub, like in the old casino days where Benny Goodman played," Hathaway said.

Mike Rizzo at Banchetti's offered his Amherst banquet. The lights get turned down low. As one band plays, another sets up on a second stage. Each band plays two sets of 20 minutes each. Modern pop hits such as "Uptown Funk" and "Skyfall" will mix with the classic beats of Gene Krupa and Duke Ellington. "We do stuff people will recognize," Hathaway said.

"It's always a great venue for the kids to play in, to get them to be able to play jazz in a setting that is strictly not a concert auditorium setting, but more of a nightclub-type setting, which is really cool for the kids," said Craig Fattey, director of instrumental music at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs. "The other thing that's great about it is kids get to hear other bands in a real relaxed atmosphere. It's not like going to a band competition. It's a lot of camaraderie. They talk to the kids in the other bands. It's really a fun atmosphere because it is like a nightclub, so it can be a little bit looser, the way pop jazz music should be presented."

All the bands will have a variation of the traditional American Big Band instrumentation with trumpets, trombone section, saxophones, some baritone horn or tuba, piano and a rhythm section that may include a drummer and bassist. Sometimes flute and guitar are present. St. Francis will include a vocalist for the first time this year.

Hathaway, a veteran teacher of public schools, came to the Mount 14 years ago and started the music program from scratch. The bands, which include marching band, concert band and the jazz ensemble, have raised $500,000 over those years to pay for all the musical instruments and equipment. The students not only learn music, they pick up leadership skills as they have to handle the business end of their gigs and serve as their own roadies.

"Music is extremely important in high school because the arts have been proven to raise test scores and improve children's lives," said Rob DeSantis, assistant music teacher at the Mount. "It's a cultural thing. Here in America we put a lot of emphasis on sports, which is great, but arts are equally important. That includes dance, music, vocal arts, the performing arts, acting, theater. It's all very important, and that's why I think our program is unique because we offer that to all of the students." With the music program, Mount St. Mary's can offer a well-rounded program to its students.

The students receive a half credit for participation. Some students even give up lunch in an effort to play with a band.

"It's really like an escape," said Reilly Brouillard, 17, pianist. "It's great to come here in the beginning of the day and start that way. I don't really know how to explain it. I feel great when I'm playing any sort of music. The jazz music is so uplifting. When we do concerts it's so much fun to see people dancing and clapping. Drum solos, saxophone solos; it's really just amazing."

The senior is looking forward to playing "Give it Up" at the jazz fest. "We have like nine solos. Going around the band, you get to hear what everyone has to offer," she said.

This is saxophonist Kristen Gorny's fourth fest with the band.

"It's really fun. It's a great night. Everyone comes out and we play music together. We have a bunch of different bands that come. We have two different stages and we all play. It's a really good atmosphere. It's a really nice night," she said.

Being drawn to music from a young age, the 17-year-old enjoys being on stage and sharing her love for song.

"It's a really creative kind of atmosphere, because in jazz we do a lot of improvisation, so it's a lot of fun. It gives you a chance to express yourself in a different way. So if people are looking for an outlet to be themselves and learn more of who they are, it's great to take up an instrument because you can learn a new skill and develop your own personal identity," she said.  

Related Articles

comments powered by Disqus