Red hot and cool

Trombonist Liana Cave goes through her morning paces with the South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble. - David Welton / The Record
Trombonist Liana Cave goes through her morning paces with the South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble.
— image credit: David Welton / The Record

Young jazz artists swing to the top

The South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble is on a roll.

But their recent kudos were not garnered overnight. Under the tutelage of a passionate teacher, these students have been honing their musical prowess for a long time and, long after high school, music will most likely continue to resonate with them.

After their win for outstanding achievement at the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival in Idaho last February, followed by the news that they made the finals in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival, you might say this band is downright hot.

The band is currently raising funds to travel to New York in May as one of

15 bands chosen to compete at the prestigious event at Lincoln Center. Named for the legendary Duke Ellington, one of the great jazz artists of all time, the Essentially Ellington festival is like the Olympics for high school jazz artists.

The judges in Idaho and New York know this band of 19 from South Whidbey has something. And there are plenty of upcoming opportunities for islanders to hear what they’ve got.

Feel some retro heat for yourself when they perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday,

March 22 at Whidbey Island Center of the Arts in conjunction with this month’s Double Feature Series offering, “Goldfinger.”

Band leader Chris Harshman will guide his young jazz musicians through a series of popular James Bond movie themes including the title tune from “Goldfinger” made famous by ’60s pop singer Shirley Bassey and “Live and Let Die” among others.

So what makes this band able to beat out hundreds of other high school Jazz Ensemble competitors and put Whidbey Island on the jazz band map?

Guitarist Jasper Hayes, a 16-year-old sophomore, had a few ideas on that score.

Hayes started his musical career on the wooden flute in the first grade at the Whidbey Island

Waldorf School.

He has studied a series of instruments since that time including the viola, various percussion instruments and the bass guitar, before settling on the guitar.

“Mr. Harshman encouraged me to take up the guitar since the band already had a bass player,” Hayes said.

“Playing guitar turned out to be a perfect fit for me.”

Hayes had seen the Jazz Ensemble play and decided it looked like fun.

He quickly learned that it was more than just fun and rehearsing most mornings before school at 6:30 a.m. is no picnic.

But, as music director Harshman said, these students are extremely dedicated.

“Learning jazz music has made me a much better musician,” Hayes said.

Trombonist Liana Cave is also 16 and is a junior at the high school.

Cave said she has played the trombone since the fifth grade and was convinced by Harshman that having a musical aspect to her life would be a great experience.

“He was right,” Cave said.

But she also credits her older sister, former high school trumpet player Amelia Cave, with having a direct influence on her as a musician.

Liana recalled her sister telling her that music was a great way to become involved with the community and with her own learning techniques and skills.

“Some people do not understand that music is a gift and when you have it you need to fully embrace the ‘feel’ to everything you play and hear,” Cave said.

“It’s not just reading off of a sheet of music. It’s deciphering what that music is and what its vibe says to you as an individual.”

Cave said she started jazz band in the sixth grade and wasn’t aware of its potential power until later on. She can now truly appreciate the experiences she’s gained from the study of music, she said.

Like many of her colleagues in the band, Cave is a versatile musician. She plays trombone in the South Whidbey High School Wind Symphony.

“I think being in Jazz Band has definitely helped me accomplish difficult rhythms and appreciate other styles of music,” Cave said.

“Being a part of Mr. Harshman’s band has been a great experience mainly because I’ve had him as my mentor from the very beginning. He’s an amazing musician and has always been helpful and supportive of my musical endeavors throughout my entire academic career.”

Perhaps Harshman doesn’t realize the reverberations of his influence, but his passion for music seems to stay with these students and impacts other aspects of their lives.

“I think being involved with music from a young age, especially jazz, has definitely morphed my independence and my own way of thinking to a new level,” Cave said.

“I am much more in tune to what I want and who I wish to become because of the immense and positive influence music has had on my life.”

Bassist Keegan Harshman, Harshman’s son, is another 16-year-old sophomore in the Jazz Ensemble.

He said he started playing trumpet in the Langley Middle School Jazz Ensemble in the sixth grade. He also played the electric bass back then on a few songs.

When the regular bass player graduated, Keegan stepped in and has been a bass player ever since.

His versatility allows him to play both electric and stand-up bass, and he can be seen playing at local restaurants and parties with the jazz combo Blue Matter with fellow students Grant Neubauer, Ian Marsanyi and Landon Moore. And like other local students of music, Keegan also plays with the Saratoga Chamber Orchestra.

Keegan said that his life will always include playing the bass in some capacity and that perhaps working in a recording studio would be his idea of a good day job.

“I’ll continue to study until the ‘after-high-school-adventures’ call to me.”

The students agreed that the opportunity to play in front of large audiences — whether on Whidbey or away at festivals — is always fun and very exciting.

“I’m nervous at first, but then I relax as we start to play and I get into the music,” Hayes said.

“It’s a very rewarding experience and makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something big and unique,” Cave said.

Indeed, many of the band’s accomplishments in the past three months or so have been really big, but it’s not always glamorous.

Dedication is key to the band’s success as demonstrated by their willingness to endure early morning practice.

But a healthy dose of stamina is also necessary as their performance schedule is fairly hectic.

Since the band’s trip to Idaho, it seems they’ve been on a non-stop whirwind tour.

They performed at Oregon State University for the Concert Band Festival, then shortly later went to the Avast Recording Studio in Seattle where they recorded their Essentially Ellington entry; the one that got them to the finals.

Harshman is like a proud father when he recalls that recording session.

“The session was fantastic, and we will produce a CD that will include this session. They loved the work; it was intense,” Harshman said.

Another session followed with the recording of a rock song entry for the KZOK School of the Rock/Battle of the Bands contest.

They took fifth place out of 71 bands in that contest and now will perform as a combination of various music students as the “Pep Band” at the Edmonds Performing Arts Center next week. That performance will be recorded for the KZOK Battle of the Bands CD.

The Jazz Ensemble will then do another recording for the KPLU School of Jazz CD with guest artist Neil Welch, a professional sax player from Seattle. Proceeds from that CD, which was by invitation only, will go directly to each participating school’s music program.

Then, of course, there’s the Friday, April 18, “Swing Into Spring” annual fundraiser for the music program, the Friday, May 2, “All Island Jazz Festival,” and finally the Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival in New York City in May.

Cave said although it may not be as nerve-racking as performing in front of very large crowds and discerning judges, it’s always good to perform at home.

“It’s still great to perform for our community and see the supportive and positive feedback we always seem to receive,” she said.

The members of the South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble are: lead alto sax, Jeff Potter; alto sax, Landon Moore; lead tenor sax, Matt Idso; tenor sax, Alec Buchanan; baritone sax, Sean Hough; lead trombone, Mark Arand; trombone, Megan Besst; trombone, Liana Cave; bass trombone, Casey Fate;

lead trumpet, Cameron Gray; jazz trumpet, Tim Atkinson; trumpet, Alexis Merculief; trumpet, Jackson Engstrom; trumpet, Evan Mattens; piano, Grant Neubauer; guitar, Jasper Hayes; bass, Keegan Harshman; drums, Toby Bloom and Ian Marsanyi.

Tickets for the for the Double Feature Series Concert are $15 and are available at or 221-8268.

Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or

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