WEST NEWBURY -- He’s only a 10th grader, but Pentucket’s Zack Murphy has already distinguished himself as one of the top student jazz musicians in the state.
Murphy was recently selected to fill the only spot for baritone saxophone in the Massachusetts All-State Jazz Band, which performs next weekend at Symphony Hall as part of the Massachusetts Music Educators Conference. The band rehearses at the Seaport Hotel in Boston on Feb. 28 and March 1, then performs at 1:30 p.m. on March 2 at Symphony Hall. Tickets are free and the event is open to the public. Tickets are available online at the Boston Symphony Orchestra website or at the box office the day of the concert.
“It’s quite a coup for a student to be accepted into this group in his or her first year of eligibility. It's incredibly competitive and only one baritone saxophonist is accepted from the entire state,” said David Schumacher, the regional school district’s director of jazz.
The recognition is another feather in the cap for Pentucket’s renowned music program, coming on the heels of more top honors for Schumacher’s Jazz Combo at Berklee College of Music’s High School Jazz Festival. For the second year in a row, Pentucket took first in its division. The annual festival is a national competition featuring more than 200 high school combos, big bands, and jazz choirs from across the country.
Murphy, who takes private music lessons with Schumacher, is the son of Andy Murphy and Geraldine Vanderhoff of Georgetown Road. He started playing alto sax in 4th grade, then switched to baritone in middle school.
“I’ve been playing the baritone sax for four years, but I’ve only been really serious since the beginning of my freshman year,” he said. He’s also teaching himself the clarinet and knows “just enough to get around” on the piano, too. He said he spends around four hours/day during the week honing his craft, more on weekends.
“To prepare for the audition I had to practice a lot,” he said. He was required to know every major scale and the harmonic minor scale in all 12 keys; had to demonstrate an ability to sight-read and improvise; and had to prepare a short musical composition – known as an etude – based the jazz standard “Cherokee” by Ray Noble.
“It was a tough day because the audition was on a Saturday morning and then the Berklee Jazz Festival was that afternoon,” Murphy said. Still, the 10th grader calls training under Schumacher “an incredibly rewarding experience” that “teaches valuable lessons on the importance of a good work ethic.”
Of his musical mentor Murphy says, “He doesn’t just hand out information and tell you what to do – he expects you to figure things out. He drives you to success through inspiration. You really want to impress him with your musical ability, which drives you to success your own way.”
Because Schumacher encourages his students to learn songs by ear, Murphy says “it’s foreign to us when we see other groups reading music when they play – but not all teachers are like Mr. Schumacher.
“He makes jazz combo a lot of fun for everyone,” said Murphy, adding that Schumacher is the only teacher he knows whose homework assignment is to “hang out with your band mates.”
When Schumacher arrived to teach woodwinds at the elementary level in 2000, the district had no formal jazz program. In less than a year he created one at the high school and in 2007 it expanded to the Middle School.
Although Schumacher is quick to credit the Pentucket administration and local tax payers for supporting his program, his track record is solid. Under his leadership, Pentucket Jazz has amassed an impressive history of competitive and educational accolades -- consistently gaining acceptance into the MMEA Senior District Jazz Band as well as the All-State Jazz Band. Multiple times Pentucket’s Combo has garnered gold in the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education’s competition and had the thrill of performing with other top musicians on the Esplanade in Boston. The Combo has also repeatedly finished as one of the top three bands in its division at the Berklee festival -- several years bringing home gold.
In addition to the Pentucket team taking top honors again this year, guitarist Jake Baynes individually won both the Judges Choice Award and Superior Musicianship Award, while bassist Mac Mansfield-Parisi and drummer John Davis snagged Outstanding Musicianship Awards. Quinn McCarron rounds out the combo on tenor sax.
Many of Schumacher’s students go on to pursue their craft in some of the nation’s premiere collegiate jazz programs. But for Murphy it’s too early to know what path he will follow. “I’m keeping my options open,” said the teen.
Meantime, he is working towards a May 1 deadline to submit a video audition for the All- National competition. “I have to prepare a jazz standard to play and improvise over, a blues song to improvise over, a section from “Sugar Hill Penthouse” by Duke Ellington, and a section from “Nancy Jo” by the Gerald Wilson Big Band,” he said.
“A big congrats to Zack for all his hard work to get to this point. We now send him on to try for a spot at the national level,” said Schumacher.