Image above: Mission Bay High School Preservationists in New Orleans
When you think “jazz,” you think “New Orleans.” And that makes sense, because New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz – the place where, in the late 19th century, African, American, and European musical traditions melded to become something new. Jazz musicians from across the nation are drawn to New Orleans to study and learn more about their art. Where else can you experience jazz culture, stand where the greats played, and play with the best of the best? Jazz music is alive and well in the Big Easy. And if you’re a teacher, training young jazz musicians, where better to teach them about the professional world than New Orleans?
So was the thinking of Mission Bay High School music teacher JP Balmat, who runs three jazz ensembles (as well as orchestra, choir, and band) at the school. “One of the main goals of our program is to get our students learning how to become professionals in the music industry,” Mr. Balmat says. “Many of our graduates are performing professionally around the world.”
And so, over spring break, eleven musicians in the Mission Bay Preservationists traveled to New Orleans. The Preservationists is the top jazz ensemble at Mission Bay, and is one of the nation’s premier traditional youth jazz bands. They have been featured at venues throughout San Diego County and California, as well as on jazz radio stations, and have previously traveled to New Orleans as well as San Diego’s sister city, Yokohama, Japan (in 2017 and 2019).
The group had two days of clinics in the world-famous Preservation Hall, working on performing New Orleans traditional jazz. Located in a historic building in the French Quarter, Preservation Hall has been a jazz venue for over 70 years; they hold 350+ New Orleans jazz concerts every year. “I loved hearing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play at Preservation Hall itself; experiencing live authentic New Orleans jazz was powerful and inspiring,” says Preservationists lead trumpet player and student band leader Ben Delgado. “And the feedback that I got after performing for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was life-changing: they told me that I had the potential to be a professional musician.”
Mission Bay students also met with Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band for a brass band clinic, facilitated by the Trombone Shorty Foundation. Rebirth Brass Band was a musical guest on the HBO show Tremé, which was set in and named for a neighborhood in New Orleans. The show, which aired from 2010-2013, was lauded for its portrayal of New Orleans culture in the post-Hurricane Katrina period. To stay with that motif, students visited Congo Square in the Tremé neighborhood (within Louis Armstrong Park) and attended a performance by John Boutté, a jazz singer who also sang the opening credit theme for Tremé.
There were many performance opportunities throughout the stay, including performing at the National Historical Jazz Park, sitting in with professional players, and playing at other music venues throughout the French Quarter. New Orleans also has a long history of encouraging street performers, so on the final day of the trip, students also became buskers on Royal Street, one of the original 18th century streets of the city, now an upscale shopping district of art galleries and antique shops. “Having the opportunity to play in New Orleans was absolutely incredible,” says Ben Delgado. “I will never forget this trip!” Students also met with jazz musicians like trumpeter and vocalist Wendell Brunious, who told them his inspiring story of kindling a passion for music.
The trip not only fostered better understanding of the history, culture, and musical style of jazz, but exposed students to experts players, professional venues, and the experiences of a career in performing jazz. New Orleans is a magical place, and this trip has the makings of legacy. We need to keep a close eye on the future of these Mission Bay student performers.