Student Jazz Band Hits The Big Time

Donations help musically innovative Payson teens perform at Disneyland

Mikayla Armstrong, left, and Abby Hazelo take center stage during a recent concert that featured students from Rim Country Middle School and the Payson Jazz Band.

Mikayla Armstrong, left, and Abby Hazelo take center stage during a recent concert that featured students from Rim Country Middle School and the Payson Jazz Band. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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They have the count.

They’ve got the rhythm.

So the Payson Jazz Band is about to let loose with some kinda awesome riff — in a magic kingdom of their own.

That is, if the teenagers can raise the money to get their improvisational selves to Disneyland.

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The Payson Jazz Band, with a mixed collection of middle school, high school and adult members, wowed the crowd with their talent and excellent musical skills.

The tight-knit, musically innovative group of some 21 middle and high school students recently aced a recorded audition. As a result, they won an invitation to entertain the crowds at Disneyland in June with their joyful and loving rendering of one of the most challenging, creative, nerve-wracking, hit-the-high-note-fun forms of music.

“This is so great for the camaraderie” of the jazz band, said middle school music teacher Mike Buskirk, himself an accomplished jazz and blues musician.

The Payson Jazz Band is an after-school labor of love for the student musicians, who have risen to the free-form challenges of jazz. Payson citizens support the extracurricular jazz band and almost every single music program in the district through their Credit for Kids tax donations.

The Jazz Band performs about once a month, including an upcoming performance at the Beeline Cruise-In Car Show, which will earn them $200 toward the Disneyland trip. The band needs to raise as much money as possible to reduce the per-student cost of the $350 per-person, six-day trip. That cost includes a hotel room, meals, reduced admission to Disneyland and a two-hour session in a recording studio, where the band will play jazzed up versions of songs from various Disney soundtracks.

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Music teacher and band member Mike Buskirk slapped out a percussion rhythm as the Payson Jazz Band kicked in and finished out the concert.

The invitation to perform represents a coming of age moment for the middle school and high school musicians and a triumphant sendoff for the five graduating seniors who have poured their hearts and souls into this quintessentially American music style throughout their school careers.

“It’ll be their last hurrah,” said Buskirk, who shares directing and mentoring roles with high school music director Daria Mason and Larry Potvin, who was caught up in last year’s layoffs at the high school, but who has continued to give his time and talent to working with the students.

The teachers put in a lot of after-school hours to sustain the district’s music program, which has shrunk in the course of the district’s long fiscal drought. Once upon a time, the district’s middle school had two levels of general music, a string class and three hand bell ringing classes and band — all for class credit. Even the elementary schools had string and band classes.

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Anna Schouten concentrates on her music as she plays her bassoon.

Now, the middle school has two band classes with other programs operating after school, thanks to support from the community through the Credit for Kids program.

The Payson Jazz Band represents one of the most successful and innovative of the after-school efforts Credit for Kids has made possible — with the help of teachers like Buskirk, who played in various bands and groups professionally in San Diego before coming to Payson a decade ago.

American jazz sprang from the untrained improvisations of mostly black musicians around 1900 — most of them living in New Orleans playing on a ragtag collection of instruments they had inherited from their fathers and grandfathers who passed down instruments they’d played during the Civil War, said Buskirk.

“It was like ‘my Grandpa died and I got this trumpet — now how do you play it?’”

That original form of jazz was almost entirely improvisational, as the joyful musicians made it up as they went along — each doing their own riffs and solos off a standard beat and chord combination, then throwing the initiative to the next player in the group.

“Basically jazz started with everyone making it up,” said Buskirk.

Many white musicians picked up the form as jazz migrated up the Mississippi to Chicago, where new forms evolved —

with set openings and closings bridged by a succession of overlapping solos. Here, the blues and its endlessly varied 12-bar-chord progressions rose up from its jazz roots. By the time jazz got to New York, it had grown still more structured — with sheet music for the great standards — each with more improvisational solos embedded in the rollicking middle. But the music retained more scope for individual styles and pacing.

Jazz and its musical offspring had a huge influence on music, for instance shaping the rise and drive of rock ’n’ roll.

Normally, jazz draws on the expertise and creativity of veteran musicians — which made starting a jazz band with a bunch of teenagers seem almost delusional when Buskirk took a music teacher job here, hot off a San Diego jazz band.

“We didn’t have any jazz in town,” said Buskirk of the musical scene he found on his arrival — “just country and western.”

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Taylor Vaughn (center) and Jessica Hoffman handle their instruments with ease as the band heard cheers and shouting a plenty as they finished up their performance.

So, naturally, he started a jazz band.

Now the band has nearly monthly performances at one gig or another, its own fan Facebook page, weekly rehearsals and an infectious love of music.

Above all, the students who rise to the demands of the form discover to their great joy that making music is a profoundly creative act — not just a labor to render someone else’s notes on the page.

Perhaps that’s why study after study shows that participating in a broad and challenging music program can raise grades, connect students to the school and spur a sharp rise in math, reading and writing scores.

One study by researchers from Arizona State University found that the SAT scores of students in strong music programs average 10 to 20 percent higher than comparable students not in such programs.

Students must audition to get into the band, but once they’re in — they play at every performance.

“Everybody plays,” said Buskirk.

“If someone’s not there, it affects the whole band. It’s a whole team. They give each other high fives — they have to figure it out so they’re all strong. Imagine if you only had five people on the basketball team and if someone’s sick you have to play with four.”

Buskirk said that the unique interplay of the musicians in a jazz group creates enduring bonds, teaches them invaluable lessons about teamwork and unleashes their creativity.

“In other bands, you do what the director says. (But in the Jazz Band) I just start them off and they start playing. Sometimes they speed up because they just feel like it. It’s a different song every time they play. To a young band, that’s very scary. They freak out and stop playing.

“We had that happen last year. Someone didn’t do what they were supposed to do, then five people panicked and it was all coming apart — and then the horn player jumped in and went ‘TA DA TA DA DUM’ and pulled them back.

“Afterwards I said ‘what the heck happened?’ And the drummer said ‘I dropped my stick.’ And the trombone player said ‘so I didn’t know where to come in.’”

Remembering that near disaster in front of an audience, Buskirk just laughs.

“Anybody with any musical training would have heard it all — and said ‘well, now, that was different.’”

All of which means a lot of rehearsals between now and June — not to mention some let-it-rip fund-raising gigs.

Maybe those fund-raisers will also get the band ready for the recording studio session — when the band will have to read the music through carefully — then hit record.

“We had to be good enough to read their music,” said Buskirk. “Until this year, we weren’t good enough to do that. But we have such good musicians, I think we can do it now. We’ll be playing a jazzed-up version of ‘High ho, high ho,’ or whatever they give us. Then we’ll have a CD and a T-shirt — and we’ll go have some fun on the rides.”

Payson Jazz Band members

Sax: Rachel Weatherly (and vocals), Kylie Ridley, Molly Beier, Deedra Wayland, Brett Royer  (and vocals), and Austin Moss

Trumpet: Tim Wallace, Dennis Rosbach, Lena Bishop, Davin Lozano, and Larry Potvin

 Trombone: John Buskirk (and vocals), Sierra McMartin, Jared Varner and Mary Szabo

 French Horn: Kit Buskirk (and vocals)

Piano: Shelby Stuart and Natalia Olivares

Bass: Daria Mason

Percussion: Camron Clawson, Ryland Wala, Mike Buskirk

Guitar: Michael Armstrong (and vocals) and Zoe Wright

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