CSUN band inspires young jazz musicians at Westlake High School jazz festival

Sharon Hardwick

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Jazz musicians from Thousand Oaks High School perform at the Westlake High School Jazz Festival Saturday, where CSUN’s Jazz Band performed as special guests. Photo Credit: Sharon Hardwick / Staff reporter

Performing at the Westlake High School Jazz Festival Saturday, CSUN’s jazz band was part of an annual all-day festival aimed at encouraging, mentoring and inspiring young musicians from the area.

Now in it’s fifth year, the jazz festival attracts around 500 middle and high school jazz musicians from Southern California to compete, learn from each other, inspire peers and audience members with music.

Although turn out this year was light because of spring break, Mike Gangemi, Westlake High School’s assistant band director and one of the festival’s organizers, said the event turned out great.

“The quality of the groups are dynamite,” he said. “There are so many good jazz programs in this area alone, and (we) bring them together to learn from each other.”

While the event was broken up into middle school performances in the school’s library and high school performances in the Carpenter Family Theatre, the festival is made up of a close group of students, parent volunteers and music-lovers who come just to listen.

The tight-knit atmosphere is intended to encourage a fun learning atmosphere where older musicians can mentor and inspire younger ones. Even the competition aspect is for comments and feedback only, which is why CSUN’s Jazz “B” ensemble, conducted by Gary Pratt, was invited to perform at the festival at noon.

“It was wonderful,” said Gangemi of CSUN’s performance. “It’s so inspiring to have a group like CSUN play. The high school and middle schoolers get to see a college band playing at a much higher level.”

With long red-brown hair and red cardigan, Jade Elliot, a petite14-year-old Westlake sophomore and saxophonist with in the school’s level II ensemble, credits the collegial, mentoring atmosphere of the festival with improving her music and helping her control stage fright.

“It’s a fun band, everyone is so nice so playing is fun,” she said.

And while Elliot said she does get nervous, the music eventually takes it away.

“In the middle I start to think ‘this is awesome’ and it goes away,” she said. “When I sit back down, that’s when I get nervous again.”

Nerves don’t seem too much of a problem for the older musicians, who come to the festival to be with their friends and to share their passion for music.

“(Jazz) helps to express to the audience what you’re feeling inside,” said Johnny Weger, a 14-year-old drummer with Santa Barbara High School’s ensemble.

Fellow musician Sebastian Martinez, a senior with the group, said the best part of being a jazz musician is the ability to build on the ideas given to you and be creative.

For Brian Peter, Westlake High School’s band director, the best part of the festival is watching and listening to the musicians, knowing where they came from.

“Young people make great music,” Peter said. “(You) start with a group in September, in its infancy not knowing what is going to happen and then you get to see how far (they came) when the year is up.”

Parent volunteers like Sylvia Woodridge, Sunghee Choi and Lynn Franklin, all of whom have children in different music groups, credit the teaching philosophy of music directors like Gangemi, Peters and CSUN’s Gary Pratt who was one of the adjudicators for the festival.

“It’s a village raises a child concept,” Franklin said.