Jazz gigs push students out of the books into the real world

05/27/2014 5:32 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

School is out, but some members of the Olathe South High School jazz band were still learning on Wednesday evening at Garozzo’s Retaurant on the corner of Santa Fe Street and Mur-Len Road.

Professional trumpeter Joshua Williams of the Shades of Jade band was putting a quartet of youngsters through their paces as they played for the dinner crowd.

“You guys are playing at the same time instead of playing together,” Williams said at one point during the first set. “Let’s do a tune you all know.”

Knowing the repertoire of standard songs is a crucial skill for anyone who hopes to become a professional jazz musician.

Guitarist Brendon Knox had brought along a book of music and had it sitting on a chair in front of him and bass player Zach Gillam. But after a few measures of Miles Davis’ “Freddie Freeloader,” Williams walked over the closed the book, saying “You guys got it? Good.”

That was just the sort of experience that restaurant manager, former teacher and jazz aficionado Stephen Butler had in mind when he proposed to the Olathe high school jazz band directors that they send small groups of students to play for Wednesday-night diners. Olathe South sent the first group, and Butler hopes to make it a weekly event, with groups from each of the four Olathe high schools featured on a rotating basis.

“We want to be an Olathe restaurant,” Butler said. “We want to do something more than just having a high school’s jersey up on the wall. We want to give something to the community they didn’t already have.

“I bring in the pros on Sunday nights and tell them that if they will come in on Wednesday, I will feed them if they play with the band. And it makes the high school program stronger,” Butler said.

Williams, a graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City jazz program, said he was happy to pay it forward.

“When I was their age, guys a little older than us like Hermon Mehari would come and sit in with us,” Williams said. “I thought ‘I can’t wait until I am able to do that.’ You learn quickly, sitting in with a band. It’s like a lesson.”

When the students showed up carrying their instruments and amplifiers shortly before 6 p.m., Butler directed them to set up in front of a half-wall on the west side of the restaurant.

“That’s part of being a professional,” Butler said, “making it fit, no matter what size the stage is. I want you to learn how to introduce yourselves and play without having a band leader in front of you.”

In addition to Knox and Gillam, the musicians were drummer Kevin Delaney, pianists Berton Rucker and Connor Fulk and bassist Nathaniel Greene.

“That was fun,” Fulk said during a break. “In school, we read off the page, but playing live you experience what music actually is. In school, no one wants to put himself out there and get criticized. … This is like speaking to each other instead of reading off a page. That’s what makes it so lively. I’ve got a lot to learn from these guys.”

The other winners in this scenario were the restaurant patrons, who got more than they bargained for during their dinners.

“We were pleasantly surprised how it added to the ambience,” said Jerry Zajaczek, as he and his family left the restaurant.

“They did very nicely,” said his wife, Maria Zajaczek. “They have a good sound for high school kids.”

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