The Durham Jazz Band has come a long way in a short time. In just a few short years, the band has grown by leaps and bounds, has won numerous awards both at home and abroad, and has created a legacy for local elementary and high school students. Yes, students. Playing in a jazz band is not a common activity for kids, but Nicole Henning, a music teacher, had a hunch that the sophisticated music might be an appealing challenge for them.
“I always found jazz to be a really exciting form of music,” says Henning, “but there aren’t a lot of people doing jazz at the elementary level.” Armed with her own experience in a jazz band and as a music teacher, she was ready to try it. She invited Andrew Cohen, a fellow music teacher, to join her after attending several of his workshops. Together they created The Durham Jazz Band (DJB) and held the first auditions in 2009 – they were blown away by the response.
In their first year, the DJB attended the Southern Ontario Band Festival (SOBF) and toured Durham Region. The year after, “We did a retreat for the first time. We did a big trip for the first time. We went to SOBF and got gold level and they gave us an invitation to nationals in Vancouver for MusicFest in May,” says Henning. The band also held their first fundraiser to help supplement their trip to Vancouver.
The students that had graduated and went into Grade 9 were asking, “Now what?” This led to the creation of the senior band, a 16-piece band made up of secondary students in grades 9 and 10. The band members pay it forward by bringing their passion and what they’ve learned back to their own schools; they participate in bands, act as assistants or mentor other musicians. “Four of our first members have gone on to study instrumental jazz performance at a university or college,” says Henning.
Recently, the students going in to Grade 11 wanted to continue, so Henning and Cohen have decided to add another senior band – a 16-piece band made up of secondary students in grades 11 and 12. The current senior band will now be known as the intermediate band, and Amy Peck, a secondary music teacher, will be their conductor. Peck ran a workshop with both bands this year and performed with them at their annual fundraiser. “She worked so well with the students and they were really engaged,” says Henning.
“Every year gets more and more wonderful,” she says. “This year, in particular, was an amazing year for a lot of reasons. Half-way through the year they were playing really well. Even at our retreat, they were crushing everything that I thought would be challenging.” So she laid out some options – they could continue to play pieces at this level, or they could take it up a notch and move into the professional division quality of music. She discussed what this would mean to them: hard work. They cast their votes anonymously, and 100% of them chose to move forward. “It’s not even the playing that I was the most proud of, it was their choices,” says Henning. Both bands received gold at SOBF and both bands came in first place in every category at the Festival of Music in New York City, including Best Jazz Ensemble, Best Jazz Section and two individual soloist awards.
With all their success, Henning is quick to deflect praise to where she feels it belongs: on the students. “I’ve never believed it’s my band,” she says. It’s their band, right? I’m just lucky enough to steer the ship.”
The Durham Jazz Band will be holding auditions on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 and 2, 2015 at Ormiston Public School in Whitby. Visit durhamjazzband.com to request an audition time slot.