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Supporters launch effort to save LMS jazz band

Members of the Langley Middle School jazz band. From left: Julia Houser, Lily Simpson, Ella Bennett, Zoe Hensler, Maddy Jerome and Dominque Knight. Tristan Strothers at the keyboard.   - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Members of the Langley Middle School jazz band. From left: Julia Houser, Lily Simpson, Ella Bennett, Zoe Hensler, Maddy Jerome and Dominque Knight. Tristan Strothers at the keyboard.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

You have to love the idea of middle school-age kids who prefer Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk or Miles Davis to rappers and rock stars.

The 20 members of the Langley Middle School Jazz Band love the genre, but don’t think too much of the South Whidbey School District’s idea of breaking up the band.

“I’ll be sad and disappointed and a little bit ashamed of the school board,” said seventh-grader Dominque Knight.

“If they take away the band, they’ll be taking away our voice, our music,” she said.

The district discontinued funding for the jazz-band program in the 2009-2010 school year due to budget restraints. Officials are trying to find ways to cut $1.85 million from next year’s budget, and the band — though repeatedly hailed by school administrators as a “signature” part of the curriculum — got the ax.

Now, to survive, the band needs help.

“I’m having a hard time explaining to my kids that they need to raise money for something they shouldn’t have to,” said second-year band teacher Jessica Foley.

She said the program needs $8,000 to stay afloat next year, and is hoping the South End community — renowned for its devotion to the arts — will rally around the baton. A tax-deductible account has been set up through the South Whidbey Schools Foundation, but the goal hasn’t been reached.

Eighth-grader Zoe Hensler felt so strongly about the band’s future that last month she appeared before the school board with bandmate Josef Jackson to plead their case.

“The thought of standing before them was scary,” she admitted.

“I told them the jazz band has no bad traits and how everyone I talked to, even those not into jazz, had said how sad they were about the band.”

Zoe was with the group that performed at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts open house recently.

“It was fun,” she said. “I really like to perform, and it’s good to play before people who enjoy it.”

Fifth-grader Julia Houser likes the experience of traveling to competitions.

“I’ll be very angry if there’s no more band,” she said. “I love this. We all do.”

Ella Bennett — a proud part of the all-girl LMS trumpet section — will be a high school freshman next fall.

“When I was in the fifth grade, I remember being so excited to try out and loved it,” she said. “It will be hard for the high school jazz band because it all starts here.”

Foley noted that in middle school they get the basics while high school teacher Chris Harshman teaches the details.

Foley graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in music education. “I applied to 14 schools in the Puget Sound region, had three interviews and was accepted here,” Foley recalled. “I had no idea how wonderful it would be on South Whidbey, especially when I discovered the level of musical talent these kids have.”

Over the past year, the band has performed at music festivals at Mount Hood, Seattle, Bellevue and the prestigious Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho.

“I am constantly impressed how many of these guys are willing to both go solo and improvise,” Foley said. “In any given performance, six to eight will step up.”

On May 23 at the invitation-only Edmonds Jazz Connection, five of the kids were part of an All Star combo. The band has received awards for its rhythm section and soloists.

“Losing all this would be horrible,” Foley said. “These kids are at the highest level; we have to turn people away as it is now, so many students are inspired to audition for the jazz band.”

Band members show up for rehearsal and practice at 6:50 a.m. during the school year.

“They’re dedicated, have an amazing work ethic and demonstrate discipline you’d expect from kids much older,” Foley added.

Foley said that providing students with a solid music education increases their chances to become well-rounded individuals.

“Music education is a synthesis for other academic subjects that develop successful character traits, establish a universal language and provide numerous job opportunities for dedicated individuals,” she noted.

“A music education creates lifelong connoisseurs of music who can appreciate, enjoy and celebrate individual expression.”

For details, call Foley at 221-5100 or e-mail her at jfoley@sw.wednet.edu.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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