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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Jazz doesn’t take vacations’: Spokane All-City Jazz Ensembles will celebrate 20 years with youth concert

Teacher Brendan McMurphy, far right, watches as bassist Andrew Atkison, drummer Olin Young and saxophonist Thomas Stenzel launch into an original tune by Stenzel during an All-City Jazz Ensembles rehearsal Thursday at Holy Names Music Center in Spokane.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

At Holy Names Music Center on Tuesday nights, notes bounce off the walls. It’s filled with a vibrant energy created by high school jazz students as a song develops and shifts.

The tune is never the same twice.

Drummer Olin Young counts off the band. He said he keeps playing jazz because “it feels good.”

Young, an incoming senior at Coeur d’Alene High School, dedicates time to be a member of the Herbie Hancock band, the most skilled group of the Spokane All-City Jazz Ensembles.

To commemorate 20 years of teaching jazz to young musicians, Spokane All-City Jazz Ensembles is holding a lawn concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday evening at Holy Names Music Center.

The group began as one big band for high school students but has since expanded to multiple ensembles and classes with guest artists and community performances.

Both middle and high school students can participate. Many members of the Herbie Hancock group have been with Spokane All-City for years.

“This program specifically is like the wide-open window into the jazz world as it actually is,” said Thomas Stenzel, a recent Lewis and Clark High School graduate who plays many instruments and has been a part of the group for three years. “It’s been beneficial to stick with these coaches as the best producers of jazz in the area.”

The coaches are Rachel Bade-McMurphy and her husband, Brendan McMurphy. Bade-McMurphy is the director of Spokane All-City, as well as the founder of Imagine Jazz, another group that works to expand jazz access in the Spokane area.

Bade-McMurphy said she specialized in jazz despite her classical clarinet training.

“Jazz is just special and something that I love to use, not only as a vehicle for expression but also to study it and learn about it,” she said. “It just makes me happy.”

Helping students find their voices through jazz is important to her, she added.

On a Tuesday night at Holy Names Music Center, the Herbie Hancock ensemble practiced “Afro Blue,” a tune by John Coltrane.

Both times, the group dropped the bridge of the song in favor of more solos and an extended outro.

“Everything that was happening was cool,” McMurphy said. “But play the long game.”

Bade-McMurphy said the group needed to focus on communicating with each other, to make sure that the baton of the melody continued to get passed around. She also wanted to make sure that soloists stepped up and took charge, instead of taking turns.

“It always goes in a line,” Bade-McMurphy said.

Instruments played in the ensemble are tenor saxophone, piano, bass guitar and drums.

Young, a key part of the ensemble’s rhythm section, has enjoyed working with the guest artists that Imagine Jazz brings in.

“It’s worth the drive,” Young said.

These jazz students plan to continue their studies in music. Stenzel, who played flute and tenor on “Afro Blue,” heads to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in two weeks. Heading to the Berklee College of Music in Boston this fall is Andrew Atkison, bass guitar player. Piano player Joseph Parry plans to focus on music performance at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

For the younger players in Spokane All-City, there’s more emphasis on building technique and learning about jazz. At the older, more skilled levels, creativity and composition are featured.

“As a long-term goal, I want to see an army of students who are really playing at a high level and have camaraderie amongst each other and a community to learn with,” Bade-McMurphy said.

Jazz has impacts beyond music. The music can be a metaphor for life because jazz mentality requires flexibility, Bade-McMurphy said.

“When you live your life that way, it changes everything,” she said.

The group is accepting students for the upcoming session, which runs October through May. While there is tuition, Spokane-All City works to make grants available. It is a nonprofit group.

Additionally, the group is looking to purchase more instruments and is accepting donations to grow their supply.

The Herbie Hancock students practice all through the summer.

“Jazz doesn’t take vacations,” Young said.

They also reject the idea that jazz is dying or unpopular among their peers.

“Most musicians are jazz musicians,” said Atkison, a bass player. “They just don’t know it yet.”

Paige Van Buren's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.