Bellingham Youth Jazz Band teaches big band classics to new generations

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Jazz music, which has been around for over a century, is alive and well in Whatcom County. The Bellingham Youth Jazz Band (BYJB) is one of many groups that allow young and old to enjoy modern performances of jazz classics.

Principal Mark Kelly started BYJB in 1997 as a feeding program for local middle and high schools. Local nonprofit The Jazz Project sponsors the band, and Whatcom County Parks and Recreation provides weekly rehearsal space at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center.

“In its 23 years of existence, BYJB has seen more children than Bellingham participate,” Kelly says, “including most schools in Whatcom County and some schools in Skagit County.” BYJB offers many opportunities for students to hone their craft.

Opportunities for students

Current band or orchestra students with at least one year of playing experience can join the Bellingham Youth Jazz Band with tuition. “Interested students learn to play in the jazz style, including swing, Latin, and other relative rhythmic variations,” says Kelly. They perform over 40 concerts a year, with options for soloing, singing, composing and playing in small combos.

The Bellingham Youth Jazz Band generally follows the big band standard of 18 musicians. Photo credit: Ken Harrison

“Students will learn more than 20 jazz standards each year, which are the foundation for new compositions they’ll encounter in high school, college, and beyond,” Kelly says.

BYJB uses standard big band instrumentation of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, and a rhythm section of bass, drums, guitar, and piano. Sometimes they include instruments such as tuba and bassoon.

“Finding good arrangements playable by young musicians is the key to making the band sound great and enjoyable for all musicians,” Kelly says. “When those elements come together, we’re actually recreating the sound that was born when those tracks were new.”

BYJB has been improving students’ stage presence, musicianship, technique, and planning skills for more than two decades. Students share camaraderie by meeting other musicians they wouldn’t normally cross paths with, from different schools or districts.

BYJB has over 100 big band arrangements and 40 combos, multiple horns and brass instruments, electric pianos, PA system, music stands, and more. Each spring, the band visits a professional recording studio to make CDs of the year’s repertoire.

Intergenerational connections

Bellingham Youth Jazz Band community partners include the Bellingham Community Band, the Mt. Baker Theater Organ Society, and countless individuals who donate large and small to make things work. Each year, the public makes donations at benefit balls held in February and July.

This performance by Village Green from 2013 is one of the Bellingham Youth Jazz Band’s many collaborations with older musicians. Photo credit: Ken Harrison

BYJB performs in rest and retirement homes, dances, theatres, parks and fairs. Notable concerts include the Children’s Art Walk at Lightcatcher in May, the Art of Jazz concert at Samson Estates Winery in July, Village Green with big band Swing Connection in August, and the Holiday Port Festival and Holiday Festival of the Arts in December .

“When we play joint gigs like the Village Green event, where we play alongside musicians 30 to 50 years our senior, the timelessness of the repertoire is apparent,” says Kelly. “You can see the connection with the public at many of our retirement/nursing home gigs; the music literally takes them back in time and memory.

Kelly received the Mayor’s Arts Award and the San Juan Music Educator’s “Friend of Music” award in 2000 and 2008, honoring the group’s generational bond.

“When we finish a concert in a given venue, it’s hard to start tidying up,” Kelly says, “because I have so many locals who come to me to express their joy at hearing the young musicians play the music of their time.”

Shaping the Future of Jazz

Kelly, who will retire in 2022, says the band is looking for a new manager who can continue to introduce young musicians to the art form of American jazz music. In the meantime, the band’s influence is here to stay.

In Bellingham Youth Jazz Band, students from several local middle and high schools can play together. Photo credit: Ken Harrison

“Almost every week I meet a former member, or a relative, or someone who heard the band play, and for the most part, they express a positive experience with the band,” Kelly says. “I’ve seen several students embark on professional careers in music, and I’ve written many letters of recommendation to students looking to get into college or find a job.”

High school and college band managers have often told Kelly that their job of leading a jazz band is made easier by the fact that freshmen already know how to swing and improvise, which, Kelly says, “was the original focus of the group when I started. Many students participate in professional programs such as the annual Jazz Project concerts.

“The Jazz Project provides a window into the world of jazz and ensures that one of the best views is right here in Whatcom County,” adds Jud Sherwood, Jazz Project Director. “BYJB gets first entry and a front row seat.”

The BYJB website lists upcoming gigs and audition details, so you can enjoy being transported to the Jazz Age.

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Henry R. Wright