Saturday's 44th annual event drew in more than 200 jazz and vocal ensembles from as far away as Florida and California. Berklee, a jazz mecca, has offered some of the country's preeminent jazz musicians as faculty. Duke Elllington, John Williams and Ricky Skaggs are some of the more widely recognized names who have visited and taught there. Its alumni include scores of talented musicians.
For Churchill, the festival was more than an opportunity for her students to perform - it was about surrounding them with top-notch ensembles and established musicians. It was about exposing them to established musicians who could offer them feedback on their music. It was about immersing them in a day-long love fest about all things jazz. Students had the opportunity to participate in clinics, visit vendor booths, learn about programs of study, speak with admissions counselors, and watch performances of peers and masters, as well as perform themselves.
Two Woodstock ensembles competed at Berklee: a jazz combo featuring five students and a jazz band with 25 students. The combo, with piano, electric bass, drum, trumpet and sax, performed what Churchill called three jazz standards: “Red Clay,” “A Child is Born” and “Boplicity.”
The 25-student band consisted of five saxes, five trombones, six trumpets, four bass, guitars, drum and piano. They performed the swing classic “Scrapple From the Apple,” “'Round Midnight,” with a trumpet feature by Megan Ferreira and “Trofeo de bolos,” for a Latin flair.
Both ensembles had opportunities to improvise as they went along, a staple of the jazz tradition. They were allowed to perform three songs in an 18-minute slot. Schools can perform anything they want at the festival, as long as it has a clear jazz influence, according to Churchill. Repertoires have included Latin and swing standards, ballads, soloists and scat performances.
“Jazz is America's music,” Churchill said. “It's part of our culture and our music history. It's important for students to have a connection to it."
The festival was a new experience for student teacher Ian Jackson. Jackson, who is in his fifth year at UConn, calls himself a classical musician. But he thought the festival was a great opportunity to get out and see what was going on in the northeast and beyond. “The students have put in lots of work,” he said. “I was proud to be a part of it.”
“The whole day was great,” Churchill said. “The students maxed out. They played the best they've ever played. When they finished, they knew it. They got a standing ovation at the end.”
One of the highlights for alto saxist Zack Bartolomei was playing solo in “Trofeo de bolos,” in the combo performance. “I kept feeding off the energy of the crowd,” he said. Between performances, he was able to listen to other groups including some very impressive high school musicians from San Franciso.
Junior Connor Rosenberg was one of three percussionists from Woodstock. He played drums during the song, “Scrapple From the Apple.” “The performance felt good and solid all the way through,” he said.
Churchill said the group received some feedback from the adjudicators at their performance and they will use that to improve. She is graduating seven seniors this spring, so she will need to find replacements for them. “It's the curse of the high school music teacher,” she said, laughing. “You get students where you want them and then they leave.”
The jazz band will perform a free concert on March 20 at the Hyde Cultural Center in Pomfret. You can hear a recording of their Berklee Jazz Fest performance here.