By Eric Johnson
was a band kid in high school. Marching band. Symphonic band. Jazz
band. Pep band. "Have trumpet, will blow" was my motto,
and I suppose it served me well enough. It certainly kept my parents
out of hock. While everyone else was begging for a car or maybe
a scooter, I had my eye on a plunger. With the right plunger, I
just knew I could wa-wa with the best of them.
Each individual band had its own personality, of course. Marching
band tended to draw those who believed excessive sweating and leg
cramps were integral to the musical experience, while symphonic
band catered to those high minded sophisticates who felt music was
best performed without sweatbands. Pep band, as you might expect
if you've ever spent any time watching March Madness, was for those
who liked to wear face paint and play really, really loud.
By far the most interesting group, however, was the jazz band. A
high school jazz band is sort of like the French Foreign Legion,
drawing from both the seriously committed and the seriously messed
up, and my high school was no different. Our rhythm section, for
example -- the heart and soul of any jazz band -- consisted of a
nymphomaniacal piano player, a bass player on probation from a downstate
juvenile detention facility, a drummer with ADHD and a guitar player
who happened to be a dead ringer for Eddie Van Halen. As a jazz
band we made a pretty good rock group.
That's not to say the rhythm section had all the characters, however.
We also featured a flatulent lead trumpet player, a solo trumpet
player who refused to play chords, a trombone player with a pair
of quick-fog Harry Carey glasses and a bass trombonist who acted
as if he were an exchange student from the Hitler Youth.
Our best feature -- our claim to fame, really -- was our all-female
sax section, which sat right down front like contestants for Miss
Universe. For competitions they wore short black skirts and matching
white camisole tops, figuring what they might have lacked musically
they could more than make up for in "production value."
That's the beauty of a band -- everyone pulls his own weight.
High school jazz bands do more than play concerts, however. Jazz
bands compete. They go to contests like the Westlake-Slocum Jazz
Band Festival, which was kind of a Battle of the Bands for kids
in blue blazers.
Jazz band contests tended to be pretty nerdy affairs, sort of like
a Star Trek convention with horn cases. Though no one ever
really dressed up like, say, their favorite Blue Note artist, you
did see lots of cats in shades and, during practice at least, a
few of the really dedicated in berets. Come performance time, however,
we were all typically uniform little groups with only the occasional
head nod, and even those were less about expressing hipness than
they were about expressing relief at getting through a particularly
problematic section. Alright! (nod) Made it through the
For reasons best known to band directors, jazz band contests were
usually held in the dead of winter and always hosted by schools
at least a couple hours away from our western Chicago suburb, which,
considering the unheated school buses that transported us, meant
protracted bouts of frostbite for any member who hadn't paired off
with one of the sax players. (Deena, our hyper-horny pianist, was
wisely considered too incendiary to risk huddling with, no matter
how numb your extremities might have been).
Our appearance at the Westlake-Slocum Jazz Band Festival was unremarkable,
yet typical. At the appointed time we filed out on stage in our
usual, calculated crescendo. In swaggered the misfit rhythm section
followed by the trumpets on the high riser and the trombones on
the middle. After just the slightest anticipatory pause -- hey,
isn't something missing? -- our sax girls filed in, arranged
themselves and seductively moistened their reeds (a glorious sight
by anybody's standards). By then the restless venue full of competing
bands was awestruck. Had we been allowed to recruit, we'd have been
culling All-Staters before the first note.
Our director, Mr. Kent, peered out into the darkened auditorium,
and when the judge gave him the all clear, he turned toward us,
shrugged and raised his baton. Nothing ventured, he seemed to say,
The first piece, or chart as the other bands might have called it,
began with a piano solo, which, coming so quickly on the high heels
of our sax section's arrival, provided our audience the opportunity
to ponder two of the more contrasting forms of femininity. On one
hand you had the cool, sophisticated beauty of our sax girls, knees
together, their long bare legs as smooth as if they'd just wrapped
up filming a Nair commercial, and on the other hand you had Deena,
legs spread in her best Tori Amos impersonation, shamelessly humping
the piano bench as she stroked her instrument to a 24-bar climax.
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