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Obviously, Jazz
By Eric Johnson

I 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 intro.

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, nothing gained.

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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