To see some of the best jazz musicians in the state, fork over a cover charge, two-drink minimum and steep Chicago parking fees, right? Not the case if you go to the Fifth Annual Swing Dance at the Nineteenth Century Club on Friday where the Oak Park and River Forest High School’s award-winning jazz musicians and bands will perform an all-ages show, with the nominal entry fee going toward scholarships.

Playing in the Jazz Combo are 2018 Purdue Jazz Festival Outstanding Soloist awardees Aaron Kaufman-Levine, a junior who plays saxophone; Charlie Reichert Powell, a junior and guitar player; and Noah Sherman, a senior who plays drum set. The combo, which consists of up to eight musicians, also placed first at Purdue. The larger, 26-person Jazz Ensemble placed second for Big Band.

“It’s not really about the awards,” said Anthony Svejda, OPRF director of bands. “It’s validating; this band is recognized. But it’s our annual jazz tour where we get out of the community like a real band and have gigs, clinics and then the competition.”

According to Svejda, these musicians are “continually motivated and pushed to challenge themselves.” When the Illinois Music Educators Association (ILMEA) All State Conference awards were announced this spring, Noah, Charlie, and Aaron swept the Jazz Improv category, first through third respectively. They submitted a tape, improvising together in the Jazz Combo.

“All of it is playing off one another,” said Charlie, who also ranked second in the state at ILMEA as jazz guitarist and received recognition in four composition categories. “We’re playing a tune with a melody, following chords, sometimes disregarding that, but responsive. It’s a conversation, then Noah ‘says’ something. It’s small talk versus a deep conversation.”

Meeting daily during the “Zero Hour,” the period before school starts at 8 a.m., the Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Combo students arrive early for this extra class. And that’s just the beginning.

Every day after school, when Charlie isn’t playing, rehearsing or listening to music, he’s working on compositions, even while walking his dogs. Some of the jazz students are in the prestigious Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO) Jazz group. Others are in OPRF bands.

Noah, who ranked first in the state at ILMEA for drum set in Jazz Combo, also plays percussion in the OPRF Wind Ensemble. Playing drums since fourth grade, he began jazz in middle school. He practices approximately 2.5 hours daily.

“It’s an expressive art form,” he said. “Another voice has opened up for me.”

Owen Frankel, senior and ILMEA number-two ranked bass player in the Jazz Combo also plays tuba in the Wind Ensemble. He likes how jazz breaks down barriers because everyone is there for the music.

“As a bassist, I’m always improvising,” Owen said. “One of the most amazing feelings is being so keyed into other players. I got to the point that it just flows out of me.”

While the Swing Dance will have less improvising and more Big Band music, the goal is to entertain and get the crowd dancing. To assist, students will teach simple swing steps at the beginning and more advance swing steps midway through. ILMEA first-place-ranked Vocal Jazz tenor and senior Gabe Schonman will also sing a tune.

Listening to them play, cohesive, professional — surprising at times coming from such young music makers — the bonds formed on their jazz tour, all those early mornings together and being led by their director who “encourages and exposes them to experiences to get to the next level” are exuded through their music.

“I’m so lucky to be surrounded by serious musicians, not just that they are good, but that they want to get better, and they constantly work and we trust each other,” Noah said. “The best part of my day is playing with this group.”

Both Noah and Owen are attending the Oberlin Conservatory of Music to study jazz performance in the fall.

The Swing Dance is Friday, April 27, 7:30 to 10 p.m. Proceeds support scholarships for OPRF students attending jazz camps and the Nineteenth Century’s Scholarship Fund. $10; $5, students 18 and under. Tickets at the door. Inquire: 708-386-2729, 178 Forest Ave., Oak Park.

The mother of Owen Frankel works for Wednesday Journal.

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