With the opening notes of Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa,” NJPAC’s Brick City Jazz Orchestra heralded its official debut in Newark’s Branch Brook Park. The sun was hot, but the student musicians were the epitome of cool.
The park’s famed cherry blossoms weren’t totally in the pink yet for the annual Bloomfest (aka the Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival), but the 20-piece orchestra was feeling robust. Under the guidance of trombonist James Burton III, the musicians – among the most accomplished high school jazz-makers in the Greater Newark area – dug into a 45-minute set. The program afforded the players solid solo turns and ranged from a double serving of Duke Ellington – “Satin Doll” and “Caravan” (co-composed with Juan Tizol) – to Sonny Rollins’ “Tenor Madness” and JJ Johnson’s “Kelo.”
The musicians, sounding as crisp as they looked in their white dress shirts, were first up on the outdoor stage, which fronted an arcade of 23 vendors and stood beside the New Jersey Hall of Fame museum-on- wheels, which also made its inaugural appearance at the festival. (Inside one of the display cases, coincidentally, was a priceless piece of jazz history: a Les Paul guitar.)
Prior to the performance, pianists Luca Farrell of Nutley High School and Galo Inga of Arts High School in Newark chatted about the concert being the long-awaited culmination of months of daily practice. “They’ve been working hard and they’re so excited to be here,” said Burton, referring to the entire ensemble, which he conducts in addition to the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra.
“It’s thrilling to hear the growth of the band,” said Laurie A. Carter, NJPAC’s Vice President of Arts Education. “The nervous young men and women who auditioned back in September thrived under James’ leadership and formed an incredible ensemble. The BCJO is indicative of what can be accomplished by young people who are given the tools and support to enable them to grow.”
Carter stood near the stage with NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber, a longtime jazz devotee. “Early in my career I road-managed European tours for the big bands of Woody Herman, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich,” he recalled. “The BCJO sounded so great, I can only imagine those genius bandleaders smiling down on our kids from jazz heaven. Long may they swing!”
Mostly family members and friends accounted for the audience until the sounds of bebop, swing and Latin rhythms lured a stream of park visitors to fill the seats. Among the listeners were Brooks and Sarah Morgan of Cranford, who wanted to introduce jazz to the tender ears of their sons, ages 6, 4 and 1. Longtime festival goers, they became jazz converts when a nephew at Bernardsville High School took up drumming.
Duane Phillips was there for his son, Darius, a BCJO pianist and student at Cicely L. Tyson Community School of Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange. Alex Bocchino of Cedar Knolls, whose 17-year-old guitarist son, Justin, attends Whippany Park High School, said that apart from the BCJO, Justin has formed a jazz combo. He is preparing to enter William Paterson University as a jazz studies and sound engineer major.
“He’s learned so much from this program,” said Bocchino, who originally nudged his son to audition. “He soloed on almost every song today, so he’s really taken hold of it and made it his own.”