The Snoqualmie Valley, nestled up to the Cascade Mountain Range, is known for spectacular scenery and rich recreational opportunities. The area about 30 miles east of Seattle is also becoming acclaimed for something associated more with city streets than mountain streams. It’s a jazz hotspot.
Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie, the area’s biggest town with a population of just under 11,000, boasts a jazz program that’s emerging as one of the best in the state of Washington. Its 20-member jazz orchestra is returning to Starbucks Hot Java Cool Jazz March 25 at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre after earning its first invitation to the showcase last year. The ensemble will also be returning for the third year in a row to the prestigious Essentially Ellington competition later this spring at New York City’s Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at the Lincoln Center. There it’ll be one of only 15 groups from North America to compete for honors before a panel of judges that includes jazz luminary Wynton Marsalis. Seattle’s Roosevelt and Garfield high schools will also be there.
Mount Si’s climb to elite status in the highly competitive Seattle scene corresponds with the arrival in 2013 of band director Matthew Wenman. A U.S. Army veteran and 2008 graduate of the University of Washington, Wenman emphasized that the program’s recent success is attributable to the deep investment made by his academic cohorts and predecessors, as well as parents and, most of all, students.
“I couldn’t just walk into any high school and go to Essentially Ellington in the first year and then go to Hot Java Cool Jazz,” said Wenman, seated in a cluttered office adjourning the school’s band room. “It takes years and it takes a community.”
No Magic, Just Hard Work
The 21st presentation of Starbucks Hot Java Cool Jazz will feature Mount Si along with other top bands from Edmonds-Woodway, Mountlake Terrace, Garfield and Roosevelt high schools. One-hundred percent of ticket sales for the event go to the participating schools. Last year, $55,000 was generated, bringing the total raised over two decades to something in excess of $455,000. In addition to generating funds, the event, which Starbucks has produced since 1995, provides an exciting showcase that nurtures and celebrates young talent.
The bands featured at Starbucks Hot Java Cool Jazz represent what’s recognized nationally as an uncommonly fertile jazz scene. Wenman, who was in the audience for a Hot Java Cool Jazz performance when he was the age of his current students, has encountered plenty of what’s-in-the-water speculation over the past few years. There’s no secret, he contends.
“There’s nothing about the dirt here that makes people want to play jazz,” he said. “There’s nothing in the water. It’s really just the investment made by people who are passionate about music and passionate about kids. They give of themselves and kids respond and work really hard. Those two things happen and you begin to build a program over time.”
Wenman pointed to two band directors whose dedication has set an example for Northwest music educators – Scott Brown, the director at Roosevelt since 1984, and Clarence Acox, Jr., who’s been at Garfield since 1979.
“Scott and Clarence have been doing it for so long that they’ve crossed generations, and that’s significant,” he said. “You’ve now got people who have been teaching for a long time who were once their students. Who are now investing in the culture here and throughout the country.”
The Sacrifice and the Payoff
Wenman took up the saxophone as a pre-teen and pretty much found his calling. Too young to play in his middle school band, he nevertheless willed his way into its ranks. Well-meaning aunts and uncles tried to nurture his interest with contemporary commercial jazz CDs, but it wasn’t until he came across a sampler featuring the heavyweight likes of Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz that he found the sound he was looking for. A trip to summer band camp sealed the deal for him. In the company of adults and youngsters as devoted to mastering the music as he was, Wenman thrived.
“In my little sixth-grade brain I said, ‘I’m going to be a band director,’ and I’ve never looked back,” he recalled.
He first came to the Snoqualmie area to teach at Twin Falls Middle School, which feeds into Mount Si High School. Some members of his current group have been with him for seven years – a major portion of their young lives. He’s taught them, and he’s learned from them.
“Kids can see right through adults like nobody’s business,” Wenman said. “They know if you’re genuine or if you’re just trying to feed them something that comes from a textbook that you have to get through that week. All of them are making some kind of sacrifice to be here doing what we do. Which is what I want. I want them to feel what it’s like to sacrifice something for something else, and feel what it’s like to get the payoff. Or not and have to deal with that. That’s just part of the whole process.”