By Gary Alexander
For the 10th time, the award-winning Garfield High School jazz band will return to Lopez Island for their first performance of the school year on Saturday, Oct. 13, from 2-4 p.m. at Woodmen Hall. Tickets are $15, $5 for students and are available at Paper Scissors on the Rock, the Lopez Book Store, Blossom, or at the door.
Clarence Acox has directed Garfield bands since 1971 when he arrived from Southern University in Baton Rouge. Since then, he has built Garfield into one of the premier jazz programs in the nation. Under his direction, Garfield has won the Essentially Ellington national high school big band competition, a record four times, since 1999. Acox was named “Educator of the Year” by Down Beat magazine in 2001, and in 2004 the Seattle Music Educators’ Association gave him its “Outstanding Music Educator” award.
In interviewing Acox for this, my 10th article promoting his band’s appearances here, I asked what the jazz band landscape was like in 1971 when he arrived. He confirmed what I recalled as a young Seattle-based jazz musician in the early 1960s. Garfield’s “stage band,” under King and Kent-Meridian’s program under Hal Sherman were the sole jazz programs of note back then. In the late 1960s, Waldo King had left Garfield, so Garfield’s jazz band went by the wayside in the rock years of the late 1960s.
In 1971, Seattle had a billboard that said, “Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights.” That sign could have applied to jazz programs as well. When Acox arrived at Garfield in 1971, the band program was in shambles, so he had to start by directing the marching band and gradually work his way into building today’s jazz juggernaut from scratch, beginning with some Count Basie arrangements by Sammy Nestico. Acox told me that two great secrets to his success over the last four decades were the many fine feeder systems through the Seattle schools, the goal of going to major jazz festivals in Idaho and Reno each year and European tours for his best big bands. His bands have now toured major European jazz festivals in 13 summers.
For instance, the first Garfield High School Jazz Ensemble that delighted the Lopez Island audiences in October 2008 went on to win the No. 1 spot in the national Essentially Ellington high school contest and then toured festivals in France and Italy and recorded a CD from that tour called “An Italian Love Affair.”
This year, Garfield band will return with a 30-member jazz band (or more), including two complete saxophone sections and a deep bench in the rhythm section, including students from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds. Acox told me to keep an eye and ear out for three great new saxophonists, Evan DeTurk, lead alto; Aidan Seimann, tenor sax, and Avi Chung, solo alto sax; as well as trumpeter Marshall Simon. Come hear these great stars of the future next Saturday.
Gary Alexander programs jazz and The Great American Songbook on KLOI, 3-6 p.m., each Friday and Monday. Tune in for an extended sample of Garfield’s big-band recordings this Friday on KLOI, 102.9 FM or stream live audio at www.KLOI.org (click “Listen Live”).
Special thanks to Dean and Carolyn Jacobsen for making this series possible, along with Friends of Woodmen Hall, Clarence Acox, Garfield Jazz Foundation, band members and their families.