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Wisconsin Jazz Quintet Competes In Prestigious New York Jazz Competition

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Maayan Silver
/
Four members of The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music's Batterman Ensemble (L to R) Isaiah Jones, Jr. on piano, Casimir Riley on baritone sax, Hannah Sternberg on bass, Preston Carr on drums, missing: George Davis, on alto sax

Last weekend, the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music sent an ensemble of high school students to a prestigious jazz competition in New York City. It was a once in a lifetime experience for the quintet of five Milwaukee-area high school seniors — to play at the Charles Mingus Jazz Festival and High School Competition.

Before leaving for the Big Apple, four members of the Batterman Ensemble met up on a Wednesday in a Conservatory practice room on the east side to run through their set for the competition. The Batterman five were one of 12 groups competing from around the U.S. and one of only three jazz combos chosen from specialized schools and programs like the Conservatory’s Jazz Institute.

Hannah Sternberg, a 17-year-old high school senior from Brookfield Central, plays upright bass — the instrument the late Charles Mingus is known for.

“Yeah, we have three Mingus songs that we have to learn," she assesses. "Each tune’s a different tempo. We have to try and showcase that entire style of jazz in each tune that we play.”

Festival Coordinator Sarah Williams says it’s really a rich landscape for these kids to dig into. "Charles Mingus’ music is really one of the most varied legacies in music," she says. "He touches on sounds of Dixieland, bebop, Latin rhythms, swing, lyrical romantic ballads, west coast jazz, European classical forms, African folklore."

Williams says Mingus, who died in 1979, left quite a legacy. "He recorded over 100 albums, he wrote over 300 compositions, and left the second largest legacy in American [jazz] music after Duke Ellington," she says. 

The high school competition is Mingus’ widow Sue’s endeavor to bring this music to younger student musicians. Conservatory instructors Mark Davis and Eric Jacobson have been working with the teens. They are professional members of the Conservatory's We Six Jazz Sextet. Jacobson says just going is considered a win.

“This top group is, you know, they're considered some of the best in the country right now," says Jacobson. "And so I'm just really proud of them, but also it's just a fun thing to see that growth.” He says great players have come out of the Conservatory, and he expects the same for these kids.

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Credit Maayan Silver
Batterman Ensemble: Isaiah Jones on piano, Hannah Stermberg on bass, Casimir Riley on baritone sax and Preston Carr on drums. Missing: George Davis.

Pianist Isaiah Jones, Jr., a 17-year-old of Milwaukee’s High School of the Arts, already has a love of jazz. "Jazz means a lot to me," he says. "Like, I’m heavily into it, every single day. I listen to it every single day. It’s like my favorite thing to play, favorite thing to listen to. I love it."

And now Mingus’ music is up there as well. "I really just started getting introduced to Mingus this year when we started playing his tunes," says Jones. "So I’ve been listening to him a lot lately. Just to see where these songs are originated from, how we should be playing it."

And what does he think?

"I like it," says Jones. "I like his style, he has a very obscure type of sound. Very unique. It’s pretty cool."

Drummer Preston Carr admits that he was a smidge intimidated about heading to New York and competing. But, ultimately, "That’s also part of what’s exciting about it is, we don’t know how it’s gonna happen. I think that’s jazz. You never know how it’s gonna go,” he says.

The group just got back from their trip to New York earlier this week. The combo didn’t win first place in their category. But a couple of the musicians were singled out as outstanding soloists, and got to play with the Mingus Big Band to a sold out crowd at the Jazz Standard.

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