By JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY — How is it that Pentucket’s Jazz Combo keeps on bringing home gold? The answer may lie in an educator who not only encourages young musicians to dream of greatness but insists that they reach it.
For the second consecutive year, Pentucket’s top jazz ensemble took first place in their division at the Berklee College of Music’s High School Jazz Festival.
And for the first time, Pentucket swept the three Outstanding Musician awards handed out at the event as well — a feat Director of Jazz David Schumacher has never before witnessed at the festival.
Schumacher says he is “supremely proud” of the accomplishments of combo members Eddie Gaudet, Aubrey Harris, Emma Jones, Alden Slack and Josh Torvi. Gaudet, Harris and Torvi won the outstanding musician recognitions.
But with accolades repeatedly showering the combo year after year (the group has also taken third and fourth prize numerous times) it’s fitting to shine the light on the program’s creator as well.
In addition to directing jazz at Pentucket, Schumacher is a composer and bandleader who began his own schooling in jazz with Branford Marsalis and Andrew Spreight. For a decade he split his time between Massachusetts and New York City, where he was co-leader of the 17-piece band Sound Assembly. He now own and operate DS Music Studios in Newburyport.
For the past 13 years he’s brought his top jazz musicians each winter to compete at Berklee in the largest festival of its kind. Now in its 45th year, the event features over 200 high school jazz groups from 137 schools in 14 states. The competition is divided into three categories — Large Ensembles, Combo Ensembles and Vocal Jazz Ensembles. To ensure fairness, schools compete within divisions based on student enrollment. The ensembles are adjudicated by Berklee’s faculty, who issue written performance critiques.
This year Pentucket’s combo received the highest scores in the entire competition — an accomplishment that can be linked in part to Schumacher’s expectations for excellence in the district’s 7-12 grade jazz program.
One of the unique characteristics of Schumacher’s program is his willingness to accept any student, regardless of musical experience or ability. Those who have never played an instrument are as welcome as those who have enjoyed years of private lessons. Novice players begin with a year on the Blues Band before graduating to the Big Band to further their skill development. The focus is on the fundamentals; and because the knowledge base in jazz is cumulative, a student only progresses to the next level when they are ready.
They begin by listening repeatedly to original recordings in order to learn the nuance and style of a particular song, artist or genre, then emulate what they hear in practice and ensemble.
“That’s how the great jazz musicians all learned” in the days before private saxophone lessons and high school jazz bands, notes Schumacher.
Often referred to as “America’s only original art form,” jazz is — by its very nature — the perfect compliment to the tumultuous search for identity that is high school life. “The improvisational element is huge,” says Schumacher. “ It allows students to be creative and find their voices.”
Students in Pentucket’s jazz program learn to perfect both the “micro and macro elements” that go into playing jazz. The goal is to push them beyond a working understanding of a concept, up into the realm of mastery.
“Good enough doesn’t cut it. They are expected to be great in every respect. The confidence that results frees them to be creative and effective as improvising musicians,” Schumacher says. “I am never cruel or mean, but I can be brutally honest.”
For the Jazz Combo, Schumacher ups the ante even further. Independence and accountability are emphasized. The musicians create their own set lists and learn the art of audience interaction. The best performances are the ones that become a “two-way street of communication; a collective conversation,” Schumacher says. Combo members must excel individually but also learn to cooperate and feed off what is handed them, musically speaking.
To perform at the highest level, Schumacher believes his combo must form a cohesive bond, both on and off stage. “I stress group camaraderie outside of ensemble to develop strong musical communication within the ensemble,” he explains.
Pentucket High School Principal Jonathon Seymour maintains that Schumacher’s track record of success in jazz competitions is a testimony to his “dedication to developing excellence.” He marvels at Schumacher’s ability to consistently train high quality musicians to take up the mantel once current combo members graduate.
Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen describes Pentucket’s Jazz Combo as “an exemplar” for the world-class educational opportunities the district hopes to provide every student.
“Pentucket is fortunate to have remarkable educators, like David Schumacher, to ensure every student reaches his or her dreams,” he said.
To hear a recording of the Pentucket Jazz Combo’s award winning set, visit http://festival.berkleejazz.org/html5/recordings.php?event=2013hsjf.