Student-Led Jazz Band Brings Music to the Masses – Mitchell Republic
When Zachary Van Meter and his bandmates came up with a name for their student-led jazz combo, it turned out to be more difficult than expected.
Suggestions from various members included Groovy Gang, Jazzpocalypse, and Broken Pencils.
“Our bassist is an amazing player, but he’s not the best at coming up with names,” laughed Van Meter in a recent interview with Mitchell Republic.
Eventually, the Mitchell-based band settled on the name TriTones, a reference to an important musical interval in jazz music. Since then, the band has performed under that name while bringing their jazz style to the crowds at various events in the Mitchell community.
Van Meter, a homeschooled junior who serves as the band’s main bandleader, said the band formed outside of the school jazz band as a way to continue playing music and to avoid boredom during the summer. Along with Van Meter, who plays trumpet, the TriTones feature Jesse Dodd on drums, Aiden Beckstrom on bass, Drex Martinek on trombone, Christian Kremer on tenor saxophone, Levi Gephard on alto saxophone, James Payne on trombone, Maddi Gerlach on piano and Ella Mutziger on guitar.
“We were all in a jazz band in eighth grade. And aside from Jesse, we’re not great musicians and we all wanted to improve,” Van Meter said. “When we started it was in the summer and there was no jazz band, and we were all bored because we weren’t playing music. We wanted something to do.
The band got together and began practicing their craft, developing a sound that incorporated American jazz classics like Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington as well as jazz arrangements from other non-jazz acts, including Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes and Africa by Toto.
Playing jazz was a natural progression from their time in a jazz band, as the form of music is perfect for musicians who want to learn and study improvisation.
“The most important thing is freedom of expression. You can improvise. You can take liberties with the melody and other amazing stuff that you don’t get in a concert band or other genres. Jazz encompasses so much more than people realize,” Van Meter said.
The band meets up to three times a week in Mitchell High School’s music room to practice, though he admits their student schedules can sometimes conflict with their practice times. They strive to maintain social distancing and use the playable masks and bell covers that are required on school grounds.
It is to these practices that they work their sound and the art of playing together as a unit, something that develops over time and grows with the familiarity of other musicians. Even for dedicated students, learning the ins and outs of jazz music can be a challenge.
“I wouldn’t say it comes naturally, per se, but everyone has this freedom in the sense that we feel comfortable with each other to play stuff like that. It comes with practice and the having a frame of acceptance with others who are in the same boat,” Van Meter said.
The group is run entirely by students with occasional help from teachers at Mitchell High School and Dakota Wesleyan University. Ryan Stahle, who leads the group at Mitchell High School and Bethany Amundson, principal and instructor at DWU, both provide guidance and arrangement assistance for the group when called upon.
“It’s actually a student-led group. My private tutor (Amundson), who works at DWU, helps from time to time. And Ryan Stahle, he educates us all and is an amazing musician, helps us with things that we don’t understand,” Van Meter said.
But the majority of the organization of the band goes through Van Meter and his fellow musicians. They plan their training. They book their performances. They choose their setlists.
The group had formed, had practiced several acts and found a name. All that remained was to bring their love of jazz to an audience. Since forming, the TriTones have performed at various events and fundraisers for local groups like CASA and the local Farmer’s Market. And while jazz music doesn’t necessarily dominate the charts like some other genres of music, they found that people really enjoyed their performances.
“It’s been great, lots of positive feedback. People tell us it’s really great that we’re doing this and we love this music. It’s been a really good response,” Van Meter said.
More performances are on the way. Van Meter said they were planning a show at Back 40 in the near future, and that the band is also scheduled to perform at the school’s winter concert. The group was even invited to perform and present at a meeting of the South Dakota Music Education Association due to the student nature of the group.
“We received an offer from the SDMEA. They asked us to present at the meeting and perform,” Van Meter said. “It’s kind of a unique thing. Almost no high schools in South Dakota have all-student-run combos.
As a group is made up of students who are still in high school, the future of the group is bound to change over the years. One member of the group will graduate this year, with a few more expected next year. Van Meter said they seek to establish the band as an entity that sees an ever-changing lineup of players as they progress through high school, ensuring the TriTones will continue to make music even if the names and the faces of the members change.
The search for future members is already underway, Van Meter said.
“Levi is the only one leaving us next year, but we have a freshman, Mason Benzow, who is not in the group at the moment. When Levi leaves, I want (Benzow) to continue in some way. so since a lot of us are juniors, a lot of us will be gone in two years. We want someone else to continue that combo, because that’s a really cool thing that happens in this high school,” Van Meter said.
Van Meter thinks the tradition can continue. All it will take is for more high school musicians to discover the appeal of playing jazz and the joy of playing with friends and making music together.
“If you look at jazz and all that you can do in jazz, it’s not hard to grasp. It’s not something where every note has to be right or perfect,” Van Meter said. “Jazz is where you make mistakes. If you don’t really know how to play or are hesitant, jazz is the perfect thing to start with. It’s such an open field to experiment with what you can do. It is a domain without limits.