The Sacramento Choral Calendar
24th Annual Folsom Jazz Festival
Jazz Choir Competition - January 26, 2013
by Dick Frantzreb
The Folsom Jazz Festival has been an annual event for 24 years, and this was my first experience of it — and at that, I didn’t get a sense of the whole thing because I was focused only on the jazz choirs. For this all-day event, there were four times as many jazz bands and instrumental combos as jazz choirs, filling Three Stages in Folsom and Rolling Hills Christian Church in El Dorado Hills. All the events were open to the public, and the price of an all-day pass was negligible, considering the quality of the groups performing. Most of the audience members were performers waiting for their turn, family members, and fellow students. And to me, it’s amazing that these venues weren’t overwhelmed with jazz-lovers from the general public.
Even though I’m guessing that nearly all of the people present were connected somehow with the participants, my first thought on arriving at Rolling Hills Christian Church was, “This is huge.” Indeed, with 28 schools represented by bands or choirs at just this one venue, there was a lot of activity. Arriving around noon and staying until 6, I heard about half of the jazz choirs who competed (they started at 8:50 a.m.), and what I heard was both educational and entertaining.
I say educational because, with all the choral singing I’ve been exposed to, I’ve never been to a full concert of a jazz choir, so I found myself noticing a lot of things that seem to be characteristic of this genre. For a start, I noted that all the groups seemed to consist of 11 to 13 members, and everyone was on a microphone. Moreover, everyone was dressed in black (a convenient way to achieve uniformity?).
I didn’t recognize much of the music. I’m guessing that a lot of the selections were covers of recent recording artists with whom I’m not familiar. I will say that I heard Kerry Marsh’s name a lot as arranger. And to be fair, there was considerable variety in the style of music: edgy to easy harmonies, up-tempo to gentle ballads. Each group had 3 or 4 pieces in their 30-minute set, and you could see them trying to demonstrate their versatility. I have to say that much of what I heard was not what I have considered my kind of music, but damn, it was entertaining! I heard some outstanding, impressive performances of some very listenable music. And during those 5 or 6 hours, I think I underwent a conversion or broadening of my taste in music – and surely that’s a good thing.
I was impressed with a lot of very sophisticated harmonies and rhythms, and it led me to believe that many or most of these kids are excellent musicians. Many seemed to have mastered key elements of the jazz vocal craft, including scat singing and (apparent) improvisation. This was all the more impressive because everything was memorized. I saw a lot of emphasis on soloists, though the ensembles generally produced a better sound than the average soloist. Among soloists, I heard a lot of voices that were not completely matured, but still well trained for this kind of singing. Yet there were, of course, some notable exceptions as far as vocal maturity is concerned: kids with amazing voices who seemed ready for the big time.
There wasn’t much a cappella singing: the great majority of pieces were accompanied – most often by piano, bass (string or electric), and drums. I also saw guitars, a vibraphone, and a flute. Adult leaders were, of course, in evidence. Sometimes they accompanied on piano or directed. But I think that for the majority of the groups I observed, the ensembles performed most of the time without a director.
One noticeable thing about this genre is that most of the singers move a lot – swaying, gesturing with their hands and arms, flexing their knees, etc. And some of the jazz chords seem to be helped by a pained facial expression. Clearly, the kids are conscious of being up-front performers – projecting personality and feeling the music. At one point, I found myself thinking: “Where are the great young singers going? To jazz choirs!”
The highlight of the afternoon was the performance by the Sac State Jazz Singers. Interestingly, of the 13 of them, 7 are alumni of Folsom High School, a tribute to the quality of its jazz program. This group performed unaccompanied and relied a lot on beatboxing (singers making percussive sounds close to the microphone and sounding very much like drums or a bass). Not surprisingly, the Sac State Jazz Singers featured a lot of especially strong individual voices. And their music was even more sophisticated and innovative than what I’d been hearing from the high school groups. The complexity got me wondering, “How could they possibly memorize this material?” To my inexperienced ear, the music was edgy, but then (reflects this jazz ignoramus) maybe that’s what jazz is all about?
As they sang, I found myself struggling: is it that I don’t understand what they’re doing or just that I haven’t become accustomed to these unusual sounds and haven’t learned to appreciate them? Am I even able to distinguish what is good from what is mediocre? Could I recognize a flaw if I heard it? Their rendition of “Silent Night,” for example, was clearly a virtuoso performance, with a lot of art to it, but for me it was almost completely opaque.
The audience for the Sac State performance was clearly tuned in to them and gave a standing ovation. Most in the audience were also apparently fans of the absent director of the jazz vocal program at Sac State, Kerry Marsh. And after the Sac State performance, Marsh’s wife made up for his absence by connecting with him (in Bismarck, North Dakota) via Skype on her iPad. It was just a little freaky to have his head on a music stand interacting with her and the audience.
After spending an afternoon listening to a lot of new sounds, I think I can conclude that this is a different art form that I am completely incompetent to evaluate. All I can say is that I heard a lot that I really liked, and some that I just didn’t care for. I’m left thinking that this kind of singing is to most other choral music what the art of Jackson Pollock is to that of Rembrandt. By that, I don't intend to demean the music of the jazz choir. It just seems to me that this genre pushes traditional boundaries to new concepts of what the underlying “art” really is.