Annual Paly-Greene Jazz Exchange Concert returns to campus

Sofie Zalatimo, Saachi Nagar, and Jason Lin

Wearing special musician masks that allow them to play their instruments, Palo Alto High School jazz bands rehearse on the Performing Arts Center stage for their upcoming concert, 7 p.m. Thursday. According to Greene Middle School Band Director David Brigham, band students use specialized protective equipment to maintain COVID-19 safety while playing, which has created some challenges. “From a teaching standpoint, the masks hide the students’ embouchure so it is sometimes quite difficult to give meaningful feedback since I can’t see a very important aspect of their sound production,” Brigham said. (Photo: Sofie Zalatimo)

Returning to the stage after a virtual year, Palo Alto High School’s jazz bands will perform with the Greene Middle School Jazz Ensemble in the annual Jazz Exchange Concert at 7 p.m. Thursday, in the Performing Arts Center.

According to Paly Band Director Jeffrey Willner, band classes face unique challenges regarding COVID-19 safety. Willner said Paly bands rehearsed outdoors for the beginning of the school year, then transitioned back inside while maintaining safety by wearing special musician masks and using other protective equipment on instruments.

“In terms of keeping the music happening, while we’re doing the distancing thing … I had to let go of a lot of the things that I usually was really big on, like be on time, downbeat is this second,” Willner said. “I had to just let go of that and say, okay, when we’re all set, we’ll start. So that was a challenge.”

According to Greene Band Director David Brigham, each group will perform individually, followed by a joint piece, “In a Mellow Tone” by Duke Ellington to conclude the concert. The middle and high school bands rehearse together briefly before the concert, but mainly practice the joint piece independently. Brigham said the process of selecting the collective piece posed a challenge.

“It is sometimes difficult to find a combined piece that is at the appropriate difficulty level,” Brigham said. “It has to be interesting for the more advanced high school players, but playable by the middle school players.”

According to Willner, Paly jazz bands will perform several famous pieces including “April in Paris” by Vernon Duke and “Blue Rondo à La Turk” by Dave Brubeck. Willner said he hopes the concert encourages middle school students to pursue jazz band in high school, particularly given that Paly’s jazz bands have decreased in size slightly over the past few years.

“There has been a little bit of a COVID blip,” Willner said. “It’s not a lot fewer, but it’s slightly fewer. That was a challenge this year, to still maintain two bands amidst the little blip of a lot of seniors graduating.”

According to Brigham, the tradition has numerous benefits both middle and high school jazz students.

“This concert lets the middle school kids see and hear where they can be musically in just a few years with hard work,” Brigham said. “It also reminds the high school students where they were musically not that long ago.”

Willner said despite the challenges of COVID-19, he is proud of the bands’ progress and is excited for their live performance following over a year of virtual concerts.

“The biggest thing these past few years has been thinking of new ways to keep the music going,” Willner said. “And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of it.”