Sixth title for 5th Street Jazz
SOLON– Solon High School’s 5th Street Jazz vocal ensemble participated in the Iowa Vocal Jazz Championships nine times and won the Class 3A title five times, but the group was not invited to participate in 2016.
It made this year’s competition special for Solon seniors.
“My sophomore year, I was in Blame It On Our Youth, and we got third at championships, so it was very hard last year, being in 5th Street and not qualifying,” Solon senior Elizabeth Hand said.
5th Street Jazz took its sixth title in Class 3A competition at the 2017 Iowa Vocal Jazz Championships, held at Valley High School West Des Moines Tuesday, March 28. Blame It On Our Youth took third place, while the freshman women’s ensemble Premier was fifth.
According to high school vocal music instructor Joel Foreman, the school made history by having three groups selected for the championships.
“That’s never been done before for any school in Class 3A,” Foreman said.
The Iowa Vocal Jazz Championships have been around for 11 years, Foreman added, and Solon has offered the opportunity for vocal jazz as an activity for about the same amount of time. According to the organization’s website, the first collection of performances was billed as “The Best Of Iowa Jazz Choir Showcase,” with the name changed to Iowa Vocal Jazz Championships in 2010.
The event was designed to promote the growth of vocal jazz in Iowa by providing a venue where jazz choirs of all school sizes could perform, the website noted.
Schools submit video recordings for auditions and the top eight schools are invited for each class (1A-4A).
It isn’t known how many schools audition, but what is known is Class 3A is far and away the most competitive, Foreman asserted
“There have been years where they’ve told us that there were more schools applying for 3A than 4A, and I think that’s still true,” he related.
At least one local ensemble has been invited to the jazz championships every year since Solon started auditioning.
Blame It On Our Youth has been invited to the jazz championships three years in a row, capturing third place twice and fifth once. In addition to its six titles, 5th Street Jazz has finished twice and third once.
About 65 students participate in the high school’s five jazz choirs, Foreman said. In addition to 5th Street Jazz, Blame It On Our Youth and Premier, the school also has Mainstream, and a new group, Ain’t Misbehavin’. All five groups have their own rhythm section.
“A lot of the kids that sing in one group will play in the rhythm section for another,” he stated.
The ensembles are built around blend, balance and ability, he added.
“My rule of thumb is I try and place kids where I think they’re going to be the most successful.”
A young student might be a phenomenal singer, he remarked, but if they are added to an older group too soon, they might not have as much a chance for solos.
“You want them to gain that experience when they’re younger, and be able to use their talents and help them grow,” Foreman noted.
The high school’s concert choirs are the core of the vocal music program, “like the trunk of your tree,” he elaborated. “And then out from there comes things like jazz choir or solo-ensemble contest, or our musical, or all-state. Jazz is an extra thing that we do. Our kids happen to be really good at it, which is cool, but it’s not the primary focus of our program, it’s like a really good side dish.”
“Jazz to me is an expression of emotions,” senior Marcus Ortiz remarked, a member of 5th Street Jazz. “The big thing about jazz improvisation is you sing whatever comes to mind, whatever you can come up with on the spot. It’s all relying on you, and I think that’s pretty unique.”
His introduction to jazz music came as a sophomore. Already in choir, he knew kids who were in jazz groups, and heard good things from his friends.
Ortiz tried to model the seniors before him, with support from the recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
He said being involved in jazz championships helped him learn how to accept winning and losing in a mature way that accounts for the feelings of others.
“It was humbling,” Ortiz said of winning the 3A title. “Last year we didn’t make it, so I was pretty pumped, actually, to go this year.”
But while music may be a competitive event for some students, Ortiz just sees it as doing something he enjoys.
“I just went up there and sang, and did what I love to do.” he said.
But jazz as a musical genre represents two percent of the overall music industry. Why has it become so successful in Solon?
Foreman thinks there are a couple of reasons.
“Students are attracted to quality. They want to be part of something excellent. Just like in athletics where you have a group of people working toward a common goal. And you get to achieve something that you can’t do on your own when you’re part of an ensemble.”
Solon has a long legacy of excellence in choral music, he said, dating back before his arrival 12 years ago.
“I invited a very vibrant program,” Foreman observed. “But the type of kid we have in Solon is one who is invested and committed and willing to work toward success, and as a teacher you can’t ask for much more than that.”
High school was also Elizabeth Hand’s first encounter with jazz, and now it’s one of her favorite types of music.
Jazz choir is a “smaller setting where you have to work more individually with the people around you,” Hand said.
In concert choir, she added, you’re pretty much sticking to the script, but in jazz, there’s the freedom of improv.
“There are no wrong notes, technically,” she observed. “That’s really fun. It’s all up to you, you just have to sing how you want.”
With rehearsals of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” extended and with limited access to Foreman due to the addition of a fifth ensemble, Hand and other seniors had to take charge.
The top two choirs spent 25 to 50 percent of their time practicing on their own while Foreman was switching between the two.
“It was really, in rehearsals, up to us to work together to kind of run things, except for the time we got with Mr. Foreman,” she remarked.
After working hard, Hand said she felt rewarded.
“It was special to me,” she said of last month’s win in Des Moines.
The ability to spilt groups up to rehearse is easier now with the extra space provided by the Solon Center for the Arts expansion, Foreman said.
Foreman thinks the reason for success of the program is two-fold.
Part of it lies with the atmosphere the district has created, where students can become part of something bigger than themselves, he offered.
“We want them to be lovers of music, and when they leave here we want them to not need us anymore,” he said. “We have a big push on music literacy, so that kids can read and write, they can arrange if they want to, they can become consumers of music.”
Students are exposed to a lot of different types of music– musical theater, jazz, choral music throughout the ages– with the goal of encouraging a lifelong appreciation of music, Foreman continued.
“What we have here in the music department as a whole, is we’ve created this big, weird, eclectic awesome family,” he revealed. “These kids love each other, and they go to bat for each other. It’s the only place, I would argue, that you’ll see the star of an athletic team hanging out with someone from the robotics team, or you see a drum major sitting on the bus with one of the freshman.”