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Doug Clark: Mead’s jazz choir sings its way to the top

With the annual March Madness phenomenon barely upon us, one Spokane team has already made it into the elite eight.

Not that Mead High School’s jazz choir has anything to do with hoops.

I just want to acknowledge some extraordinarily talented kids who have earned a national ranking on a different field of play.

You can call their quest a March to Monterey.

The jazz choir will soon be headed to that oasis of Southern California affluence to compete in the Next Generation Festival. The event March 28-30 is part of the legendary Monterey Jazz Festival.

“What’s incredible to me is their dedication,” said director Mike Saccomanno of the dozen – six boys and six girls – who make up the jazz choir. “This year’s members have set some really high expectations for themselves.”

I’ll testify to that.

I made it to the Mead choir room Wednesday just in time for the ensemble’s regular 7 a.m. rehearsal.

I don’t know about you, but the act of singing rarely enters my mind this early. Normally, I’m too busy trying to restart my heart with caffeine.

Ah, but to be young.

After making a variety of bizarre larynx-loosening noises, the young jazzers jumped into a bouncy arrangement of the old standard, “Moonglow,” with Saccomanno driving the piano.

Pitch perfect. Seamless harmonies. Great groove …

It didn’t take too many measures for me to understand why faculty members from Boston’s famed Berklee College of Music ranked this group among the country’s top eight.

That ranking, said Saccomanno, was out of hundreds of applicants who sent in CDs of their choir performances for a blind judging. Only the top eight qualified to compete in Monterey.

Saccomanno noted that this was the first time he’d ever entered this competition.

Based on the reaction he’s getting, I’m betting it won’t be the last.

“It’s a great honor for kids who have worked so hard and are so talented,” offered Mead Principal Mark St. Clair.

“It also recognizes Mr. Saccomanno, who is a phenomenal director.”

St. Clair laughed. “Sox doesn’t do concerts, he does productions.”

Saccomanno also knows how to evoke the right emotions from his performers.

Watching the careful interplay between director and students impressed me almost as much as hearing the vocals.

Saccomanno sees singing as storytelling. The better the phrasing, the better the feeling, the better the story.

Worked for Sinatra.

“You guys are so close,” Saccomanno encouraged between numbers. “You’re right on the brink.”

During one break I asked the group to name the best thing they take away from their director.

Over and over again, the word “trust” kept coming up.

It was a real kick hearing high school students breathe new life into songs that were popular when their great-grandparents were young.

“I love it,” said senior Emma Allen after “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a Jimmy McHugh standard dating to the Roaring ’20s.

“It makes me feel happy.”

You can see how much pride these teenagers take in all this. My jaw dropped when I arrived to find high school kids spiffed out in ties, dress shoes, dark dresses and skirts.

No wonder. Just getting into this group, which will perform some 80 times over the course of a year, is a little like grabbing for the stars.

Yearly auditions can draw as many as 100 hopefuls, said Saccomanno. Nobody’s safe. This ain’t no union job. Returning members must audition along with the others.

“I think of every jazz choir as a brand-new group,” he added.

Hanging on one of the choir room walls is a definition in very large type.

“Ensemble …” it reads. “A group of individuals working together to produce a single effect.”

This is no academic concept to the Mead jazz choir – this is a way of life.

“Just being able to make music at this level is a treat,” said Saccomanno a few minutes after the rehearsal ended.

“I don’t have to work to get them to buy into it. The group is there. I just get to dream a little bit.”

Doug Clarkcan be reached at (509) 459-5432 or dougc@spokesman.com.


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