The Savannah Music Festival’s Swing Central Jazz is a workshop and competition featuring 12 of the top high-school jazz orchestras in the country.
Over 300 students will spend three days in Savannah receiving guidance and instruction from some of the finest jazz performers working today.
Swing Jazz Central is heading into its 13th year and SMF Associate Artistic Director Marcus Roberts couldn’t be more enthusiastic about working with these remarkable young people. “We’ve been at it for some years now and we’re as excited about it as we’ve ever been,” Roberts said.
Roberts, who is an accomplished jazz composer and pianist, founded Swing Central Jazz with former SMF Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson.
“We both had a firm belief that jazz music, to keep it going, we’ve got to find avenues and ways for young people to become interested in the music,” Roberts said. “We also use it as a vehicle so that prominent jazz musicians of our day can be commissioned to write or arrange a piece every year, so that we have a connection with what’s going on right now between several generations.”
It is connecting the different generations of performers that is integral to the program’s success.
“It was [playwright] August Wilson who taught me, ‘It takes two generations to raise the next generation,'” Roberts explained. “That was a profound thing that he explained to me. He said, ‘If you lose that link, if you only have one generation, or you miss a generation, then it takes several more decades to keep people engaged and invested in an art form.’”
The students will get the opportunity to work with several jazz educators and performers, including Jason Marsalis, Jim Ketch, Brianna Thomas and Wycliffe Gordon, in improvisation workshops, instrumental sectionals, a rhythm section workshop, and individual clinics for each instrument. Roberts certainly wishes that something like this existed when he was a teenager.
“As a matter of fact, that is one of the things I always challenge our faculty with,” Roberts said. “I always ask them, ‘If you were 15 or 16, what would you have wanted someone to tell you that they didn’t tell you.’”
After several days of clinics, the students should come away with an understanding of how playing with authenticity will strengthen their ideas, personality, and musicianship. Since there are so many incredible instructors sharing their experience with the young people, Roberts describes their teaching methods as a “village approach.”
“That’s my goal,” Roberts said. “To use the power of community to teach each young person how to unlock their individual talent and individual ability, and to show them how to use it to promote group citizenship.”
Audiences will get several chances to see the students show their chops, first with an open-air showcase called Jazz on the River on April 4 followed by the Swing Central Jazz Competition on April 5. The three-day event will culminate with the Swing Central Jazz Finale, featuring the top three finalists in a competition for the Jean Elizabeth Faircloth Award.
This year’s finale concert will feature Robert’s original suite “Romance, Swing and the Blues,” which he recorded with his 12-piece band, Modern Jazz Generation, in 2014. The suite puts jazz music in the context of a couple falling in love, with joys and sorrows that go with it, and the swing of jazz representing the heartbeat of American culture.
“Jazz music is really the foundation of American culture because all of our American music styles came from it..,” Roberts said. “If you look on stage and see a set of drums and some kind of bass and a piano, that’s an American invention... All of that came from the joy and virtuosity that jazz men and women created at the foundation of the music. Unfortunately, we’ve lost touch with that as a society. We want to re-establish the relevance of jazz music in modern American life and that’s why we have Swing Central.”