Located between the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Decatur High School in Federal Way is in prime position to soak up all the arts activities on offer. And these teenagers are creating their own art as part of a successful and still-growing jazz program.
As their mentor, multi-instrumentalist Alex Dugdale recalled his "deep diving" jazz education at Roosevelt High in Seattle. He also spoke about his first instrument, tap dancing. "You can't truly appreciate jazz music without acknowledging the importance of tap dancing," he says. "We had a wonderful moment (in rehearsals) at Decatur. I had the band get up and I taught them a couple of simple shuffle steps," which helped teach them about the direct connection between rhythm and body.
The rhythm section is a place of pride at Decatur High. Band leader Jeff Chang says that the school's former drummer, Daniel Hackett, left before graduation to work as a producer in Los Angeles. Chang told us that Hackett — working as Kid Culture — has been writing and producing music for Justin Bieber and Mariah Carey. He earned two Grammy nominations this year for his production work with rapper YBN Cordae. It's proof that the work these jazz musicians put in now can pay off in the larger world of music.
Drummers Vito Atienza and Ben Phillipose each performed on one of the band's two Sonny Rollins songs, "Doxy" and "Pent Up House" respectively. Then they teamed up for a funky New Orleans brass-influenced cover of the 1989 hit "Just a Friend" by rapper Biz Markie. It's an arrangement by the band, beginning with an idea by trumpeter Ben Adams.
"I wrote a bass line," Adams told us, "that our bass player decided to ignore, because he's better than that." From writing down the melody, it was relatively easy. Adams says, "We're all speaking the language of jazz, we know what we're doing."
That's a valuable language to know. The band learned how valuable a year ago last fall, when they traveled to play jazz for audiences in Taiwan. Trombone player Will Forbes said it was "pretty fricking amazing. We didn't speak the language of anyone in that area. The language of music was the thing that allowed us to connect. It was really impactful for me and the rest of the jazz band."
More connections and more opportunities are making some magic happen at Decatur High School. The jazz band celebrates the music of the 1920s at a concert at the school Feb. 8, with Alex Dugdale as special guest. They're far from stuck in the past, these musicians honor what's come before while striving to create an exciting future.
After their studio session performance, many of these young men told me "that was so much fun!" In the end, that's what the KNKX School of Jazz is all about.