UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Best ticket in town

The Denver area has a thriving music scene, and jazz fans have numerous venues from Dazzle and Nocturne to City Park Jazz where they can enjoy artists exploring America’s original music genre. But on Friday night the hottest music ticket in the Denver Tech Center was the Fine Arts Theater at Cherry Creek High School. In recent weeks, performing arts programs at schools throughout the metro area began their fall season with choirs, bands, and orchestras taking the stage to entertain friends, family, and the community. Friday was the turn for Cherry Creek’s renowned jazz program, and when these young, cool cats took the stage, they did not disappoint.

Band director Tim Libby, a phenomenally gifted trumpet player in his own right, has built a truly impressive band and music program during the past twenty years at Cherry Creek. The school’s large talented population enables him to field two complete jazz ensembles, Jazz A and Jazz B, with horn sections, percussion units, guitarists, and piano players. Along with his colleague Jessica Vaughn, Libby cultivates a rich music program built around collaboration and tradition. Those qualities are particularly important in some years like the current one which has just four players returning to the Jazz A lineup and many new students stepping into the program and genre for the first time.

Jazz A’s first piece of the night, “Front Burner” by Sammy Nestico, featured eight separate solos, displaying the range of the band. Libby told the crowd, “I asked the band if they wanted fewer but longer solos or shorter solos with more people. They chose more solos.” That spirit of camaraderie emanated throughout the evening. With each song, Libby recounted the piece and individual highlights, such as the beautifully melodic and soulful performance of tenor sax player Isabella Sandvall on “Skylark” by Hoagy Carmichael. Pianist Nathan Krause also received a shoutout for “playing the role of Count Basie.” That’s high praise for a high school student, and Krause kept a steady groove on the keyboard, which was complemented by drummer Casey Hughes making “his first public jazz appearance.” Hughes’ tempo was solid and in control through all four pieces, as he worked the cymbals and snare drum masterfully, keeping a steady hand.

Libby promised the third piece of the night would have some “experiments going on” as they played “Nye Time” by Mike Dana, a composition Creek’s jazz players dedicated to Bill Nye, the Science Guy, an education hero to many students. With that song the evening took on a cool groovy feel that evoked the streets of New York or San Francisco while emanating a 70’s cinematic vibe. Several times, guitarist Ricardo D’Urso took off on intricate solos that hinted at a Carlos Santana influence, or perhaps a Pat Metheny vibe. And, like they often do, Cherry Creek jazz fans got a treat later in the evening when band director Libby casually strolled on stage, his silver trumpet hanging nonchalantly from his hand. It’s always a joy for these students to jam with the teacher.

Jazz A’s performance was set up by a solid set from Jazz B featuring several big band swing tunes including “Ain’t Misbehavin” by Fats Waller and “Boogie Lou” by Paul Baker. Jazz B is led by Jessica Vaughn, who is in her first year at Cherry Creek, stepping in to work half of an impressive band program after Tim Libby transitioned into a new role this year as the Coordinator for the entire Fine Arts Department.

The Cherry Creek Performing Arts program is vast with high levels of participation and the kind of excellence that would be expected only at an arts magnet school. The program includes eight bands, seven choirs, and three different orchestras. Each of these programs put on numerous public concerts each year, usually aligning with the seasons. Additionally, the theater program stages three performances a year, including this year’s play “Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic” in November and the musical “Mama Mia” in March.

Denver undoubtedly has a vast music and arts scene, and it’s important to remember our young people as talented members and a viable part of that world. Just as we support athletic competitions in our communities, we should check in with the local high schools arts programs and make events like Friday Night Jazz a part of our Friday Night Lights.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com