The First Annual Disney Jazz Celebration Festival

Edward Blanco BY

Sign in to view read count
The majority of the bands were large instrumental ensembles--often listing more than twenty-five student musicians--that in the professional world would be categorized as 'super-sized' big bands.
Disney Jazz Celebration Festival
Disney World
Orlando, Florida
February 19-21, 2009

Billed as a celebration of jazz music Disney Style, Disney World has joined the ranks of major entertainment venues that is now promoting jazz to younger audiences when it launched the first annual Disney Jazz Celebration Festival. Developed as part of its Disney Youth Programs, the festival provided an exciting mix of education, live concerts and just plain old fun to students of participating middle and high school vocal and instrumental ensembles from all over the country through workshops, clinics and performances with top jazz artists. The primary focus, of course, was education with the opportunity to learn from world- famous jazz educators and artists. In addition, the student jazz bands were also evaluated by renowned collegiate adjudicators who critiqued performances, imparted knowledge and graded overall performances by the groups. Disney Jazz Celebration is supported in part by Conn-Selmer, Inc., a leading manufacturer, distributor and supplier of concert and orchestral musical instruments that also outfits Disney's fifty bands.

This first-ever jazz series drew the interest of jazz luminaries like saxophonist and band leader Bob Mintzer, drummer and educator Steve Fidyk, legendary trombonist and band leader Jiggs Whigham, and vocalist/ multi-instrumentalist Laura "Lolly" Allen among others. Helping to kick off the inaugural Disney Jazz Celebration on Thursday evening, February 19th, was a performance from internationally-acclaimed jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. An educator himself as a tenured professor at Florida International University, Sandoval was the featured guest that evening as he helped to introduce the many musician-educators who would be serving as adjudicators as well as the jazz artists assuming the role of clinicians.

Arturo Sandoval / Disney Jazz Celebration 2009 Arturo Sandoval (trumpet) and his band, with Ed Calle (sax)

An "Honorary Citizen of Disney," this was not Sandoval's first appearance at Disney World. Having performed here many times, he boasted that before becoming a citizen of the United States, Disney was kind enough to grant him citizenship first. Explaining that he was glad to be asked to be at this first Jazz Celebration Festival as a part of promoting jazz to younger audiences, he implored the students to keep jazz alive, stating that once jazz "used to be the locomotive [engine] of the train and now it's more like the caboose."

Heading the list of the vocal adjudicators were Michelle Weir (leading figure in vocal jazz education and former member of the Grammy-nominated vocal group "The PM Singers," Dr. Steve Zegree (Bobby McFerrin Professor of Jazz at Western Michigan University) and pianist/composer Larry Lapin (Professor of Jazz Studies and Jazz Vocal Programs at the University of Miami). On the instrumental side, the adjudicators included Dr. Willie L. Hill, Jr. (Director of the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst), Joel Leach (Professor of Music at California State University-Northridge), and Dr. Ramon Ricker (Associate Dean for Professional Studies and Professor of Saxophone at the Eastman School of Music).

The festival's welcoming event was a head-turning, virtuoso performance from Arturo Sandoval and his sextet that featured pianist Manuel Valera and saxophonist Ed Calle, both of whom played off Sandoval, delivering excellent solos throughout the concert. Held at the Premiere Theatre at Disney's Hollywood Studios, this welcome gathering drew over 700 students and directors from participating bands—from as close as Sarasota, Florida to as far as East L.A., Minnesota, New Jersey and Portland. Sandoval's music touched on a variety of jazz genres—from Latin jazz to hard bop, from the blues to just plain old straight-ahead contemporary jazz. Sandoval himself was extraordinary as he performed not only on the horn in his classic stratospheric style but also on percussion and a synthesizer before capping off the evening with a stunning performance on the piano (which he proclaimed his "real" passion).

Sandoval performed for close to two hours, engaging the student audience with his wit and impressive scatting which had the responsive audience voicing appreciative whoops on several occasions. He shared the stage with Los Angeles-based educator/vocalist Jennifer Barnes and then later with a rising young talent in the person of saxophonist Kenneth Whalum, a Selmer featured artist, who happens to be the nephew of saxophone great Kirk Whalum. They performed a delicious rendition of the old standard (partially penned by Johnny Mercer) "Autumn Leaves" before giving way to Sandoval's special tribute to the late Oscar Peterson, for whom Sandoval had previously written a tune entitled "Oscar," as he played the piano, pounding the keys into submission in a captivating performance.

The education workshops and ensemble performances before the collegiate adjudicators began early Friday, February 20th at the Saratoga Springs Performance Hall with the first performances coming from the vocal groups, including the first-ever public performance from a nine-member all-female vocal ensemble Spanish River Splash from Spanish River High School and led by Rita Bowling. They performed three tunes: "Chili Con Carne," "Sonny," and 'Summertime." After each song the vocal adjudicators (Michelle Weir, Dr. Steve ZeGree and Larry Lapin) critiqued the performance and provided recommendations on style as well as substance. There were only three vocal bands participating, with the others being "BHS Voices" from Beaufort High School and the "Epic Jazz Choir," an outstanding group from Downey High School, located just east of LA. Led by Corey Olariu, this fifteen-member vocal group with their own three-piece rhythm section, began their turn with an energetic rendition of George Gershwin's "'S Wonderful" and continued in classy style with Antonio Carlos Jobim's immortal "Desafinado," then they moved to a striking version of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's familiar "Moon River," and closed with the Jackson Five pop tune, "I Want You Back".

The majority of the bands were large instrumental ensembles—often listing more than twenty-five student musicians—that in the professional world would be categorized as "super-sized" big bands. Of course, being middle and high school bands, they often carred more instrumentalists than the average big band in order to allow more student participation. Some of the participating bands included were from Beaumont Middle School, Central York City High, Eden Prairie High School, Graham High School, Laguna Beach High School, Odyssey Middle School, Pawling High School, Princeton High School, Sarasota Military Academy, South Portland High School, and St Joseph's Collegiate Institute. The collegiate adjudicators evaluating each performance on the instrumental side were Dr. Willie L. Hill, Jr., Joel Leach and Dr. Ramon Ricker.

An important part of the educational component at the festival was the on- going master classes taking place throughout the day on Friday and Saturday. These workshops provided students with the opportunity to interact with jazz celebrities and learn techniques and tricks of the trade from the best in the business. Leading the clinics were master saxophonist Bob Mintzer, woodwinds clinician; trombonist extraordinaire Jiggs Whigham (all the way from Germany, where he resides), who was the brass clinician; drummer Steve Fidyk, who led the percussion classes; finally; vocalist Jennifer Barnes, who provided instructions on jazz singing.

The other major highlight of this first Jazz Celebration Festival was the Friday night jam session held at the Hollywood Disney Premiere Theatre. Led and directed by Dr. Willie L. Hill, Jr., student-musicians were picked at random and divided into six groups, in which they would perform with the various artists, allowing them to share the stage with jazz celebrities and showcase some of their skills. As Dr. Hill called their names for each performance, the students jumped from their seats and rushed the stage with youthful enthusiasm eager to play. Though the performances were totally unrehearsed, students and celebrities played standard tunes that all the students were familiar with. Each group began playing one chorus together before Dr. Hill pointed to the next student's turn to solo. The jam session began with the first group playing Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues" with Jiggs Whigham and a handful of students from the different school ensembles.

Disney Jazz Celebration 2009 Dr. Willie Hill, Jr.(left), saxophonist Bob Mintzer and trumpeter Nathan Warner at Friday night jam session

The second group featured Ken Whalum and Dr. Ramon Ricker as they played Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa," trading saxophone lines between the artists and students. Guest performer Laura "Lolly" Allen, a four-mallet vibraphonist, was joined by vocalist Jennifer Barnes and drummer Steve Fidyk leading the third group. Two of the best performances of the night were provided by the fourth and fifth groups. The fourth group played the all-time Billy Strayhorn standard "Take The "A" Train" (Duke Ellington's theme song) and featured Larry Lapin on the piano, Mintzer on tenor, Jiggs Whigham on the trombone and Bach-featured artist, Nathan Warner on an arresting trumpet—all sharing the stage with student musicians awed by the situation they found themselves in.

On the fifth performance the group played the familiar Gershwin vehicle "I Got Rhythm," on which Mintzer and Whigham were joined on the stage by Michelle Weir on the piano and saxophonist Ken Whalum plus four vocalists, who together belted out the lyrics like pros. Dr. Hill was masterful directing each group and mingling in on some vocals of his own. As an added surprise, Dr. Hill called on many of the directors of the various bands to come to the stage and perform the last number, Gershwin's "Summertime," to close out a rich and rewarding evening of jazz music and fun for all in attendance.

The basic theme echoed by many of the adjudicators and celebrity musicians alike to all the students participating in this first Disney jazz event was, as Dr. Hill stressed, listen, listen and listen to jazz music as often as possible: it's the best way of learning on your own. The event ended Saturday night with the Disney Jazz Celebration Jammin' Awards Ceremony, during which all groups were given awards for their participation. A handful of the bands were recognized for their outstanding performances, including the Epic Jazz Choir from Downey High School, who received the award for Best in the Vocal category. The three instrumental bands awarded Best In Jazz Ensemble Category were: Beaumont Middle School, Lexington, KY for Best Middle School performance; Laguna Beach High School,Laguna Beach, CA, for Best in Category (AA); and finally Central York High School, York, PA, for Best in Category (AAAA).

The experience of the first Disney Jazz Celebration Festival is summed up best by the following quote by a participant: "We decided to participate in the Disney Jazz Celebration this year because of the educational benefits that it provided our students. To have the opportunity to listen to jazz greats such as Arturo Sandoval and participate in master classes with Bob Mintzer, is an monumental experience our students will never forget...Every band was a winner." (Joe Bongiovi, Director, Princeton High School.)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Christine DeMichael and Disney Jazz Celebration

Post a comment




Read Chico Hamilton: The Master
Read Wayne Shorter: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read John Clayton: Career Reflections
Read Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz
Read Jon Hendricks: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read Meet Jack DiMonte
Out and About: The Super Fans
Meet Jack DiMonte
Read Take Five with Alex Jenkins
Take Five With...
Take Five with Alex Jenkins

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.