April 10, 2019–When I was in high school the band director announced he was starting a jazz band. There were only 300 students in our entire school, so once you pulled out the football players and cheerleaders, there weren’t that many of us left to fill out the pep band, let alone start a new ensemble. I guess that’s how I, a drummer, ended up playing piano.
At the first practice, the director handed out charts with symbols I had never seen before. C#m, D-Aug, G9-7, with a series of slashes (///) following each one. What was this strange new language, and how was I supposed to squeeze music out of it?
Hank Hehmsoth, who will be playing piano at the 2nd Fredericksburg Jazz Festival on April 13, faced a similar dilemma, although at a much higher level.
“I was classically trained, and when I went to a jazz audition they plopped a chord chart down and I just froze,” Hehmsoth said. “It was the most embarrassing thing. But I said, I have got to know this.”
Hehmsoth figured out how to read charts well enough to go on to play jazz piano at 10,000 gigs in nightclubs, on Broadway, in concert, and with symphonies.
That’s the thing about playing jazz: mistakes are allowed, according to Jason Younts, Director of Bands at Fredericksburg High School, who will be herding these jazz cats for the second year.
“We expect students to come to jazz band rehearsal with the same level of professionalism as concert band,” he said. “I don’t care if they play wrong notes or wrong rhythms at first, but they have to make a good sound!”
Younts created the Jazz Festival as a departure from the band competitions common at this level.
“This is not a high school concert or recital,” he said. “It is more about reconnecting with the cultural value of jazz. My students read so many charts on a weekly basis–over 40 per year–that they are seeing every kind of rhythm and chord combination, plus just playing more.”
One benefit is allowing students to “double”–or play a different instrument.
“There is more opportunity for students to double on different instruments in a small ensemble,” Younts said. “Four years ago I was skeptical of taking a student off his or her primary instrument. Now I believe in doing it whenever we can. It’s another setting to apply the fundamentals on different kinds of musical structures. It has only been positive.”
It is also fun.
“Music performance should be fun!” he said. “If not, they won’t do it or pursue it. The value is in the performance.”
Before performing Saturday evening, Hehmsoth and four similarly-accomplished jazz players–trombonist Michael Davis, saxophonist Elias Haslanger, bassist Dr. Utah Hamrick, and drummer Wayne Salzmann II–will spend the day working with high school players from more than a dozen Texas Hill Country schools, who are just as eager to figure out the mysteries of playing this true American art form.
It’s a labor of love for Hehmsoth.
“People who are really interested in their instrument find improvisation as a way to be individualist about their art,” he said. “Jazz is a way for people to express their individualism. Improvisation celebrates personal freedom. And jazz swings, that’s very different from playing classical music. You rely on yourself rather than written notes in front of you. That kind of freedom means everyone respects and listens to each other. That’s a big thing, maintaining that musical connection.”
Despite his enthusiasm, it is still true that the more sublime points of jazz elude a large percentage of the general listening population. Hehmsoth hopes events like this helps more people learn “how to listen to jazz.”
“There’s this joy and this potential,” he said. “You see young people that have this urge to know things, or are already playing and have the potential to be wonderful players. You want to help sculpt them.”
He hates to see students “just give up.”
“I played trombone first chair in high school. During my senior year, after I played Pomp and Circumstance, I put the horn in its case and never ever played it again. I’m trying to get kids to not put their horns away after high school. There are careers and all sorts of ways to enrich life through music.”
Five international jazz artists will headline the 2nd Annual Fredericksburg Jazz Festival on Saturday, April 13, 2019, 7:00 p.m., at the Fredericksburg High School Auditorium.
Admission to Saturday evening concert: $15 adults/$10 students. Parking is free, and the Fredericksburg High School Auditorium is located at 1107 So. State Hwy 16, Fredericksburg TX.
Tickets and Information at www.fredericksburgjazzfestival.com