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Santa Barbara High’s Young Jazz Stars to Rock the Stage at SOhO

These students are serious about their music, and Monday's show just might provide a glimpse of a future generation of legends

Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Joe Pass, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans and Sarah Vaughan. Jazz fiends slap themselves for having missed these foundational people in action, daydream about taking a seat at a candlelit table in darkened, swinging grottoes as they jammed, bopped and mesmerized in places whose names themselves are as etched in stone as those of the world’s monuments — The Vanguard, The Blue Note and Birdland.

It’s easy to forget that these jazz giants were once, like, teenagers. Before they were household names, before the legendary clubs, gigs and fame, before the haphazard and explosive reinvention of music, these preincarnate superheroes were cloaked in secret identity. Picture it. Gillespie scratching his beanie in calculus, Rich knitting his brow over a history quiz and Getz stumbling sleepily through French class in a cloud of je ne sais quoi — all young, fresh faces in the crowd, their towering promise known only to a few friends and parents, school band directors and the occasional eavesdropper.

Next Monday, Jan. 31, at the SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, 1221 State St. in Santa Barbara, the future of jazz will storm the stage, and you can be there. The Santa Barbara High School Jazz Quintet and Big Band will open the taps, antiquate your expectations and iron your necktie with sound.

These are not the kids whose hair you tousle encouragingly after a halting piano recital. These young artists from the SBHS jazz program swing for the fences, bringing timeless, gorgeous jazz charts to vibrant life. Jaws have been known to drop, and occasionally a parent has his wig flipped.

“I love this event, seeing my boy dressed in his black suit and silver tie, playing great jazz with his very talented classmates,” parent Patrick Smyth said. “The first time he played SOhO, I came away from the event telling my wife, ‘Wow, I didn’t know he was that good!’ and she agreed.”

Surely these focus-starved high-schoolers would rather be outside playing stickball, right? One can imagine the constant parental nagging, the ongoing effort to get these jittery, distracted youngsters to sit down and concentrate on their music. Right?

“You don’t have to coax these guys to practice or play,” said Kathleen Dagg Weger, SBHS band mom and sometime roadie. “As the band members themselves say, ‘Music is not what we do, it is who we are.’”

Under the inspired, much-lauded direction of Charles Ortega, the SBHS jazz program has been thriving and jiving for many years, winning awards and burnishing the reputation of Santa Barbara High School as an incubator of real, career-fomenting musicianship — despite ongoing budget setbacks and what seems at times a growing public disinterest in the arts as a viable pursuit for future grown-ups.

Music directors in public schools, alongside volunteer parents, are feeding the creative fever that burns naturally within these kids and drives them to excel as artists.

“Meeting the financial needs of the music program has become tougher each school year,” longtime SBHS band booster Olivia Harrell said. “It takes the school district, the parents’ financial contributions and ongoing fundraisers to keep the program going.”

These are not just endearing ‘”talented kids.” These teenage jazz ambassadors from Santa Barbara High School’s celebrated instrumental music program are fiercely swinging artists in their own right. And for the supportive parents and friends who have witnessed the blossoming of these artists in real time, it’s payday.

“Living with a saxophone player can be painful,” Smyth acknowledged. “My son sits in his room and blows into his twisted brass horn and practices scales for hours on end. ‘Be Da Ba Ba Ba Da Da‘ over and over again. It can drive a sane man mad! But then it all comes together when he plays with the Santa Barbara High School Jazz Band at SOhO. It all changes.”

He paused a moment to ponder, then said, “You know, some of these kids will go on to be pros. One day you might find yourself saying, ‘I remember seeing him when he played at SOhO with the high school band.”

The Santa Barbara High School Jazz Band and Jazz Combos will take the stage at SOhO from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. next Monday. The event will benefit the SBHS Instrumental Music Program. Call SOhO at 805.962.7776 to make reservations, or for more information, call Santa Barbara High School at 805.966.9101 x252.

— Jeff Wing is a Noozhawk contributor covering the arts.

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