Vanier jazz musicians return triumphant

The sound of a throaty, scratchy saxophone trailed down the Vanier Catholic Secondary School hallway. Then the whole band kicked in, drowning out…

The sound of a throaty, scratchy saxophone trailed down the Vanier Catholic Secondary School hallway.

Then the whole band kicked in, drowning out the afternoon announcements.

The hallway instantly filled with students, but the Grade 8 jazz band was in no rush to leave.

Trumpets were lovingly placed into velvet-lined cases and saxophones were still being cleaned when the Senior jazz band began to trickle in to the band room.

Just back from Moscow, Idaho’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, some of the guys were sporting shaved heads and one walked in with a mohawk.

“A few of us made this deal that if we won we’d shave our heads,” said trombone player Travis McKenzie.

“But we didn’t actually think we would.”

On Saturday, the Vanier jazz students placed first in their stage band category in Idaho, after competing against 24 other groups.

“We were sitting in the front row during the evening concert and they were announcing the winners,” said McKenzie.

“And they got to our category and they had this long pause, and it was all suspenseful, then they said, ‘The winning band travelled all the way from Whitehorse to be here.’

“I was just screaming like a little kid at Christmas.”

After the announcement, the Vanier band had only 20 minutes to run out to the bus and grab its uniforms and instruments before performing one of their winning pieces for the evening show.

“We were all elated, but had no time to bask in it, we just had to go up and give’r,” said McKenzie, who was in such an addled state he forgot his instrument on the bus.

“We were all running back from the bus with our uniforms and instruments,” said their music teacher Anne Turner.

“And Travis turns to me and says, ‘Where are our instruments?’”

He was so excited he had rushed back from the bus, forgetting his trombone in the process.

On the main stage, in front of at least 2,000 people, the Vanier Jazz band played its ballad, A Night in Havana.

And they weren’t even that nervous, said several students.

Although a few guys did tease tenor sax player Ben Steinburg about his shaking hands.

Steinburg was featured in this song and everyone could watch him live up on the big screen.

“But once I got out there with the lights, I couldn’t see and it was better,” he said.

“We just had fun out there, ‘cause we’d already won,” added McKenzie.

Even during the competition, the jazz band was relatively relaxed.

“We were competing against US bands that started playing in Grade 4,” said Turner.

“So, we went knowing there were going to be some great technical players.

“But we are a very connected group with lots of passion and heart — we have so much fun playing.”

And the adjudicators must have appreciated this.

“It helped how Ms. Turner prepared us,” said bass trombonist Helen Wale.

“There was absolutely no pressure.”

“And we played the best we’ve ever played,” said bassist Emily Tredger.

“I don’t care what anybody says, it was a personal best for the group,” added Turner.

And winning was the icing on the cake, said McKenzie.

“It was some good icing.”

There were 18,000 student musicians at the Idaho jazz festival, with more than 365 secondary schools competing on Saturday.

And with 24 groups in its category, the Vanier stage band didn’t even expect to place in the top 10.

A nine-piece Vanier ensemble from the 14-piece stage band also competed as a combo and placed third in its category.

“It was such a great year,” said Turner.

“They’re a small group, but they’re such great friends and they’re so connected.”

Three years ago, most of these young musicians traveled to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, on a musical, cultural exchange. And last year the same group went to Cuba.

“A Night in Havana was inspired by our Cuba trip,” said alto sax player Daniel Harms.

While performing at the Yukon’s Rotary Jazz Festival last year, the Vanier jazz students met Marty Summers, who runs BC’s Surrey Jazz Festival.

Summers encouraged them to attend this year’s Lionel Hampton festival.

Using much of their own money, as well as some fundraising cash, the students paid for their trip south.

They flew to Vancouver and then took a chartered bus the additional 11 hours to Moscow.

Although the town of roughly 20,000 almost doubles in size during the jazz fest, it didn’t seem crowded, said Tredger.

In Idaho for almost a week, the Vanier students took workshops and listened to visiting jazz greats.

“We tried to hear as much as we could, including solo acts, vocalists and Latin acts,” said Wale.

“It was just incredible.”

“There was even workshops on swing and ‘40s fad dancing,” added baritone sax player Aprile Hanrath.

There was an incredible prodigy from Kazakhstan, pianist Benny Green, a Czech tap guitarist, some great Russian musicians and 80-year old Hank Jones, gushed the jazz students.

“There was 20 people in line to talk to Benny Green but he took time to talk with each person,” said Tredger.

“And it was nice to hear all their views and how it works,” added Hanrath.

“It was such a wonderful experience, it’s hard to put it into words.”

“The experience all of us have gotten through this band is incredible, and we’ll all remember it for the rest of our lives,” said Wale.

The Vanier Senior Jazz Band will be playing at the Rotary Jazz Festival again this year and are sometimes commissioned to play for parties and open houses.