Before practice officially begins for the Monterey Jazz Festival County High School All-Star Band in CSU Monterey Bay’s Music Hall, the group’s 20 members start to warm up. As each performer explores his or her instrument, the high-ceilinged room fills up with what sounds like an extremely experimental jazz composition.
Then, a few minutes later, director Paul Contos brings order to the practice.
“We have to pull this together, people,” he announces to the now dead quiet room. “It has to be happening, man. We will be playing in front of the 10 best high schools.”
Contos—who in addition to being the group’s director is also the saxophone player in his own band Alegria and a music professor at CSUMB and UC Santa Cruz—is referring to the band’s upcoming gig at the MJF’s Next Generation Festival.
After one band member proposes that the group make its own CDs for the show, the group returns to the task at hand: polishing their repertoire, which includes songs from the library of Duke Ellington and a tune by the Heath Brothers. As Contos snaps his fingers to the beat of the first number, the band comes in with a unified wall of horns grounded by the jazzy pitter patter of Tim Spier’s drums.
A minute into the tune, Contos stops the band with a wave of his arms. “Good, good, good,” he says. “Did someone practice?”
Now, before tackling the next section, Contos vocalizes how the song should sound. “Da ba doo boo dap,” he scats.
Despite the fact that all of these high school students just spent a full day at school and attended other extracurricular activities, the group is extremely well-focused on heeding Contos’ directions. It is a very comfortable atmosphere where it’s obvious that the group respects the director and is still able to joke with him at appropriate times.
At one point, Contos has a couple of unique requests: “Do you have a fat aaahhh? Who can give me a Hootie Williams booomt boomt boomt?”
Sitting in the row of chairs, while Spier plays drums for the first part of practice, drummer Skylar Campbell has an answer for Contos.
“I think you should,” Campbell jokes.
In the middle of the practice, vocalist David DiMauro walks in with his father. After patiently waiting as the band ties up some loose ends on some other numbers, the skinny, ballcap-wearing 15-year-old Carmel High student takes his place behind the microphone.
After waving at pianist Emily Intersimone, the only female in the group, DiMauro wraps his incredibly smooth, mature voice around the jazz standard “How High the Moon.” As his voice seems to effortlessly imitate his idols—the Rat Pack—DiMauro adjusts his cap on his forehead. Following the tune, DiMauro leaves to the sound of applause from his colleagues.
A few songs later, the group debates the next time they will practice. Though the group has been rehearsing once a month since January, Contos admits that there will probably be a significant increase in the amount of practice sessions as the big gig approaches.
Despite the large time commitment of today’s two-hour practice and more practices to come in the near future, Spier is looking forward to playing the Next Generation Festival.
“I am excited about it,” he says. “It’s an honor to be able to kick it off.”
The 18-year-old drummer says he discovered jazz in middle school after a Monterey Jazz Festival clinician came to his school. Spier, who has performed in the band for the past two years, has a few reasons for playing what some of his classmates call “old person’s music.”
“It’s just fun,” he says. “It’s a cool outlet, being able to jam with your friends.”
In addition, Spiers says that it is hard to get bored playing jazz.
“The music is always changing,” he says. “You can never play it the same way twice.”
Pony-tailed band guitarist Brice Albert also shares Spiers’ excitement for jazz. Albert, who was more into rock bands like Led Zeppelin until his dad told him to join the school jazz band, is now clearly passionate about jazz music.
“I started listening to Miles Davis, and I really got hooked, man,” he says.
Albert says that because of local organizations like MJF, there is a lot of assistance for aspiring local players.
“There is so much opportunity around here for guys like us,” he says. “It’s like something you could spend your life doing.”
The Monterey Jazz Festival County All-star Band performs at The Portola Plaza Hotel, 2 Portola Plaza in downtown Monterey, Friday, April 8 at 7:15pm. free. 373-3366.