SP jazz group wins at Berklee festival
SOUTH PORTLAND — Last month, the South Portland High School Jazz Ensemble brought home first prize from the prestigious 41st annual Jazz Festival at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
So what does the nation’s top high school jazz ensemble do now?
They’re going to Disney World. And they’re taking more than 60 other high school and middle school musicians with them.
Eight-five musicians and 20 chaperons will travel to Florida next week.The South Portland Music Boosters have donated $60,000 towards the trip and helped students organize five other fundraising events to pay for the trip.
The trip will include a competition and several non-competitive performances, and culminate in a live studio recording, under the director of a Disney music conductor. The students will be given music charts to perform on the fly. Their music will be set to a Disney animation, which will be shown while the students play.
Band leader Craig Skeffington said the Disney trip is a chance for students to get a taste of what life is life for a professional musician. While his bands love taking home awards, Skeffington said the trip is also a chance for students to decompress.
“It’ll be a nice break from all of the competitions,” Skeffington said. “We’ll be there just long enough to soak up the sun.”
The good times started rolling for the 20-member jazz ensemble on Jan. 31, when the group competed in the Berklee jazz festival. Not only did the group top 16 other bands from California to Florida, but two SPHS musicians brought home individual awards.
Blake Hawley, a 17-year-old guitarist, received the Distinguished Performer award and Albie Gingrich, a 17-year-old vocalist and trombonist, received an Outstanding Performer award.
Both musicians said their awards were completely unexpected – especially Gingrich, whose trombone fell apart right before her performance.
“I had to borrow someone else’s trombone and the slide, which was dented, so it’s really hard to move,” Gingrich said. “So I was really nervous.”
But Gingrich made it through the group’s instrumentals, “The Cheese that Time Forgot” and “Girl Talk.” The third piece, the vocal “Too Close For Comfort,” allowed Gingrich to find her comfort zone. She attributed her performance, which during rehearsal was somewhat sultry, as the real reason she won the award.
“My vocal piece, I could ease up on that. I think it’s more of my forte,” said the senior, who landed the lead role in the high school production of  “Hello Dolly” and plans to pursue a career in music education and theory.
Hawley said that he didn’t feel his performance at the festival was good enough to win an award. He’s been to the festival before, and seen many fine guitarists leave empty handed.
“In past years, I’ve seen these burning players who you’d think would win these awards, but they don’t,” Hawley said. “I really felt horrible about my performance. I never imagined I would win a superior musicianship award in a million years.”
Hawley, a junior, said he would like to pursue a career in music performance. He is already living dream, playing jazz gigs with locally renowned trumpeter Mark Tipton. Hawley also plays in several groups with Deering High School jazz bassist Dominic Sbrega, who nearly won a chance to perform at last weekend’s Grammy awards.
The success of the jazz ensemble continues a tradition of excellence in the high school music program, which under Skeffington has become one of the premiere programs in the state.
Sitting in on the group’s rehearsal, it’s no wonder how the students get their award-winning chops.
Skeffington is not one to sugar-coat his criticism, which he is able to deliver in both comically and seriously. He communicates both in technical terms and more tangible language that evokes the mood of the piece.
“I want longer, fatter, angrier quarter (notes),” he tells the group during rehearsal. “It’s all about style.”
When he finds a troubling measure, he will often stop the band cold and deconstruct the 20-member ensemble until he finds the weakest links.
Then, he will make them repeat difficult phrases, which usually involve triplets, until they are played flawlessly. The group will sometimes spend 10 minutes hammering out one measure.
“It’s all about muscle memory,” Skeffington explained later.
While this type of rehearsal seems tedious to the passive observer, the students seem to recognize the value.
“I think it helps he beats the crap out of us,” said Hawley, whose guitar has a smooth, Wes Montgomery sound.
Although the group has become one of the best in the nation, there is still plenty of work left to do. The group headed to Biddeford on Wednesday to compete in the District 1 jazz festival, a preliminary to the All State competition March 11-13 in the South Portland Auditorium.
Whatever happens, Gingrich will consider this year’s experience a fitting end to her high school musical career.
“It’s just great to end my senior year on a high note,” she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

Gingrich.JPGAlbie Gingrich sings “Too Close For Comfort” during a recent rehearsal with the South Portland High School Jazz Ensemble. Gingrich received an Outstanding Performer award at the 41st annual Berklee College of Music Jazz Festival, where the ensemble brought home first prize. (Billings photo)
Hawleyband.JPGBlake Hawley takes the lead during a recent rehearsal of the high school South Portland High School Jazz Ensemble. Hawley received an Distinguished Performer award at the 41st annual Berklee College of Music Jazz Festival in Boston. (Billings photo)

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