“Loud and obnoxious” is how pianist Caeden Greene describes the music of the band he is auditioning for on a Sunday afternoon in south Durham.
The band will be large – 16 musicians in all – because the Chapel Hill teenager will be performing jazz, the four-letter word finding a new, younger audience.
“I listened to some vinyl and some radio – really got into it with (bassist) Christian McBride,” Greene, 14, said.
The latest jazz generation in the Triangle is honing its chops back where the music began: miles from the high rents of downtown. The nonprofit Durham Jazz Workshop is one of south Durham’s many open secrets, a gathering place for learners of all ages to try their hand at American music.
“To be successful, you have to play jazz,” said alto saxophonist Alexander Waguespack, 14, of Durham.
Waguespack, who has been playing sax since fourth grade, practiced a 12-measure excerpt of Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” for about a month to prepare for his audition.
How did a fourth-grader born only a few months after the first iPod connect with brass?
“I’m not good with technology, number one,” Waguespack said. “My older brother played sax, and I asked him if I could try his, but he hocked it in college.”
Conrad Hartman, 17, bassist, auditioned for a second season with the Workshop.
“The hardest part (of “Billie’s Bounce”) were the fast notes and the high register,” Hartman said. “That’s stuff I need to work on.”
Hartman, from Durham, has been playing upright bass for three years. Now a high school senior, he began playing music in middle school as a guitarist in a jazz-rock combo. When the school’s music teacher asked Hartman to fill in on bass, Hartman took to the instrument.
“I’m really keyed into the pianist and the drummer,” Hartman said. “I’m always there, but almost never in the spotlight.”
On Friday and Saturday evenings, when the Workshop becomes the Sharp 9 Gallery, Hartman has volunteered with ticket-taking and concessions in exchange for the opportunity to take in performances by jazz combos from around the region.
“The idea is to educate the next generation of the jazz audience,” said Valerie Courreges, 55, one of the Workshop’s co-directors. “To make it warm and welcoming, so that ultimately people feel at home.”
Varen Maniktala, 13, of Raleigh gave up on his taekwondo lessons and lacrosse practice to focus on playing jazz guitar. Last Sunday was his first audition for a slot with the Workshop.
“I think I did OK,” Maniktala said. “The timing was 4/4 but the measures were pretty fast.”
Trumpeter Karan Driehuys, 15, of Chapel Hill drove himself to the audition on a DMV learner’s permit. If Driehuys makes the cut, it will be his second time around with the Workshop’s Youth Orchestra.
“I just started practicing two days ago,” Driehuys said, as he greeted a friend from school who was also there to audition. “I do well under pressure.”
The Workshop’s other co-director, Dave Finucane, 52, who also teaches music, said a common misconception about jazz is the idea that improvisation is material pulled out of the air.
“You’re actually not making stuff up,” Finucane said. “You’re drawing upon a lot of musical ideas that you’ve worked on in the practice room.”
Youth big band director Taylor Savage, 29, said the auditions help place the musicians with peers who have a similar level of experience. This is the third year the Workshop has offered a big band orchestra for youth.
“Like a team sport, you play together, and you grow and learn and bond with the other students in the ensemble,” Savage said. “I think jazz provides these students with an avenue through which they can do these things.”
You’re actually not making stuff up. You’re drawing upon a lot of musical ideas that you’ve worked on in the practice room.
Dave Finucane, co-director
Drummer Ike Richmond-Bryant, 14, of Chapel Hill is another Youth Orchestra veteran who is back for more. He said he practiced four different beats – Swing, Latin, 3/4 time and ballad – for as many weeks in preparation for the audition.
“I don’t know if (music) is something I want to do when I grow up, but it’s something I want to keep,” Richmond-Bryant said.
Two weeks later, the first rehearsal for the advanced Youth Big Band Orchestra is underway. The lineup reunites nearly all who auditioned, with Green on piano, Hartman on bass and Driehuys on trumpet. Savage runs the group through Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses,” then turns to the trombone section.
“Could we just do the first three bars, there, ’bones?” Savage asks.
In addition to a December performance at the Sharp 9 Gallery, Savage tells his orchestra he would like them to record an audition for next year’s Savannah Jazz Festival.
“Where’s Savannah?” a trombonist asks.
“Georgia,” Savage replies.
“That’s far away,” the trombonist said.
“It is far away … but we’ll cross that bridge if we get there,” Savage says.