Playing jazz is like visiting a foreign country.
At an elementary level, jazz is an exploration of improvisational techniques, of listening to the harmony and simultaneously composing and playing a melody that goes with it, even when that melody hasn’t been pre-determined. It’s a way of thinking outside the box with music.
“He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt,” Albert Einstein said. “He has been given a brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice.”
At the high school level, jazz grows into something very personal. Students hear the music that they play as others hear it and, through art, implicitly discover their own place in the world.
“Art is self expression,” jazz saxophonist and composer Bennie Wallace once said. “If you are expressing someone else’s personality, that is not art.”
And when jazz makes the leap from being a one-time-only display of virtuosity—living only in a passing moment and unknown to the musicians before they got into that performance—to being a timeless opening of our souls, it brings with it memories like those we keep from the few times in our lives when we might visit a foreign country.
Brian Logan has made that leap in jazz over the course of his 25 years as the band director at Wheeling High School, where he and his students, together, have worked through unique challenges in Chicago’s northern suburbs.
He has been nominated and advanced to the semifinalist stage in the GRAMMY Music Educator Award and, more importantly, has brought music, art, self-expression, and discovery to thousands of students during his career. And when it comes to giving students opportunities for discovery in the world around them, few vehicles take them on a better ride than good jazz.
The jazz band’s latest stop on the journey was their third consecutive win last weekend at the 31st annual Jazz in the Meadows festival at nearby Rolling Meadows High School. The festival brought in 108 ensembles from 65 schools in five Midwestern states for a day filled with jazz. There were jazz bands in the main gym, the band room, another gym, and, it seems, anywhere space would allow.
But Wheeling students have also discovered the world through rides in different vehicles, although jazz may have been playing on the radio. In 2014, Mr Logan took the band to Italy to play in the Umbria Jazz Festival, where musicians have wailed since the summer of 1973.
Performances tend to be large outdoor gigs, with thousands of people walking by. That’s a big deal and all, but just like improvising a jazz chart, the most meaningful moments often happen at the least planned and pre-determined times.
“Next to Umbria, my favorite gig in Italy was when we played at a small restaurant in the town of L’Aquila in the region of Abruzzo,” said Patrick Ryan, who has played in the top jazz band at the school since he was a freshman. “In 2009, this small town suffered a massive earthquake and was still in a massive cleanup-rebuilding phase even five years later. Our concert was held as a benefit concert to raise money for earthquake repairs.
“The restaurant was filled with tons of people, and the audience was genuinely interested in our performance. We had a full house of people who chose to come hear us play,” he said.
Mr Ryan attributes the success and critical acclaim of Wheeling’s music programs, in part, to Mr Logan’s knowledge of music and his way of developing close, personal relationships with almost all of his students. Wheeling’s music program is smaller than others in the area, and Mr Logan serves as the director for the marching band, the wind symphony, and a jazz band and combo.
“The biggest factor in Mr Logan’s success is his ability to share his tremendous knowledge of music—both jazz and classical music alike—by demanding excellence from us but also keeping the mood of rehearsals relatively lighthearted,” Mr Ryan said. “As a musician, it’s much easier to be creative and play to the best of my ability when I’m not afraid to make a mistake, because the director isn’t condescending and hard-driving 100 percent of the time.”
A solid work ethic and the celebration of a quality performance
Next up for Wheeling’s music department is a trip to Indianapolis Thursday for a wind symphony performance at the National Concert Band Festival, hosted by the Music For All organization. The wind symphony will be the first group to perform at the three-day festival.
And for those performances on national or international stages, Wheeling has student musicians who hone their musical ability through private lessons and hard work.
“There’s someone in the band room every morning by 6:35,” Mr Logan said, describing the extracurricular jazz band group, which holds rehearsals outside school hours, meeting twice a week before school and once a week in the evening. “We even have wind sectionals in the early morning.”
The school has a higher incidence of poverty than many others on the North Shore, which can make paying for private lessons a challenge. In 2015, 48.3 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals, according to the Illinois school report card, compared to about 29 percent of the 12,000 students in Township High School District 214.
“Private lessons are strongly encouraged to develop both stylistic and improvisational skills,” Mr Logan writes on the school’s website, and the school provides lesson scholarships for students who need financial assistance but want to develop those skills.
“We have some socioeconomic challenges here,” he said, “but kids and their parents are just hard-working. There’s no sense of entitlement.”
“It doesn’t feel like I’m working hard,” Mr Ryan said. “I get to play my horn and have fun.”
As a reward for all that work, the ensemble gets to perform with world-class guest artists. Wayne Bergeron, Mark Colby, Peter Erskine, Rob Parton, Terell Stafford, and many others have joined Wheeling’s Jazz Band I on the stage. The group performs several charts every year from a variety of professional big band libraries and has even commissioned works by notable jazz composers and arrangers.
“Playing music at a high level and having fun along the way is what we do,” Mr Logan said. He is set to retire at the end of this school year. “If you do the work, then the performance becomes a celebration of quality.”
“Jazz music is a language of communication,” Mr Ryan said, describing his trumpet playing on stages that were filled with the people who have come into his life. “And it’s much easier and much more fun to communicate with your friends.”