Instruments moan out the first notes of the day as members of the Blue Knights sit down to tune before class starts. Sitting in the middle of the oval is band director Kim Harrison, sight-reading some of the band’s music while he plays his trumpet. He finishes the bar, rests his trumpet, and looks up.
“One, two, ready and…”
The room unites into one wave of sound–blues scales and jazz licks echo around the band room.
Practice has begun.
East’s top jazz band, the Knights, consists of 20 kids total, all upperclassmen except for two sophomores. Although a small group, the band has shown its ability by performing on a larger scale–since 1997, the band has placed first at every competitive jazz they have attended. It’s a tight group; besides the guitarists and pianist, all the kids in the group have dedicated two of their six school hours to band. Keshav Ramaswami, a 4-year guitarist for the program, has seen the potential in this year’s group.
“There’s a lot of people who may be a little shy at this point, but there’s a lot of potential is this band, whether it be playing solos or playing background,” Ramaswami said. “From what I’ve seen from these seven weeks, I think we’re going to do really well this year.”
The program didn’t begin until 1986, when Harrison came to East. He had taught band in various western Kansas schools for six-and-a-half years before that, and, once he arrived at East, he saw the necessity to establish a jazz program. East remained the only school in the district who didn’t have a jazz band in their curriculum. Teaming up with Orchestra teacher Jonathan Lane, the two formed the first band as an extracurricular. They practiced one hour after school once a week, and thirty minutes before school once a week. Only one and a half hours of total practice together. The band had 13 members its first year.
“I barely had enough kids to call it a band,” Harrison says sitting in his office. The walls are covered with jazz band plaques and certificates. “It was pretty small then.”
After two years of functioning as an extracurricular, Jazz band was added as a class to the East schedule in 1988. Though slow to take off, Harrison saw the first glimmer of hope for the program in 1990 when they placed 2nd at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Jazz Festival. It was their first true competition.
“Here we were, in our second year of having jazz as a class, and [we are] already placing in a competition in Missouri,” Harrison said. “We had the potential to have a really good program.”
“This is the last tune and I want it to rock the house!” Harrison shouts.
The band starts in Black Coffee, a classic jazz piece from 1948. It’s an impressive blend of sound, the strength of the brass, a steady strum on the bass, the soft tap of the cymbals and drums combined with supporting chords from the piano. The song breaks into a trombone solo, and then a trumpet, and then two more solos after that. All of the them are completely improvised, using only a base of “jazz licks,” or basic jazz beats, to build off of. The song ends with a final blast of the trumpets.
“I thought everybody did better.”
He never gives too much away, never admits to perfection
In 1997, principal Dr. Cocolis approved the addition of a second jazz band class—the Blue Notes. Along with student’s outside training and East’s positive response to jazz, the program was able to truly take off. Competition after competition, the Knights took home the first place prize. The band has also made appearances at the “Essentially Ellington” Festival in New York City in 2001 and 2006. The festival selects only 15 bands from the country, chosen after listening to a recording of six songs from each school. The first time they went, as Harrison recalls, almost nine of the fifteen bands came from Performing Arts schools.
“We were competing against Miami High School for the Performing Arts, Atlanta, Georgia, New York City, Los Angeles, and then, Shawnee Mission East,” Harrison said. “You’re in there with awfully incredible company.”
Along with their impressive festival showings, the band comes with an impressive group of alumni. Six former members of the band now perform or work as musicians in New York City, including last year’s graduate Matt Chalk, who is currently studying at the New School in New York City and Kevin Cerovich, who, as a senior at UMKC, was named the 2003 “World’s Greatest Jazz Trombonist” from ages 18-25.
“Trip-a-let Trip-a-let Trip-a-let!”
Harrison stresses each syllable, clapping his hands. He’s talking to the drummer who’s struggling with the beat of the Woogie, A New-Orleans tune for the upcoming show. “You gotta do it buddy!” They start the measure over again, Harrison focuses on the percussion. They stop again. “Put the accent on one, and slow it down. You’re going too fast.” The band regroups, and starts again. This is crunch time.
With the Fall Show only days away, the band isn’t focused on the notes and rhythm anymore.Those were memorized weeks before. Their focus is style. Staying true to the art form of jazz. Just like actors bring the words of a script to life, the students bring out the emotion of the music.
“It’s just like taking your game to a higher level in a sport,” Harrison said. “To sound professional they really have to be focused.”
To Harrison, the band has always remained a hidden gem. Always lost in the bigger names of the music program, their talent remaining relatively unknown to the East community. But despite it’s lack of notoriety, he sees the program always remaining a strong base of the music program, powered not by his dedication, but the students’ love of music and dedication to both jazz and regular band.
“I’ve had kids in the past who would’ve just done jazz,” Harrison said. “But I want the other part of the program to be good, too. I don’t want us just to be a good jazz band, I want us to be a good concert band too. It’s nice to have balance.”