Cathie Anderson

5 Sacramento-area schools home to top student jazz performers in U.S., DownBeat says

Once again, the Sacramento region stands out nationally as an exceptional training ground for jazz vocalists and musicians with five local educational institutions taking top honors in DownBeat Magazine’s 40th annual Student Music Awards.

Read through the awards pages in the publication’s June issue, and you’ll find plenty of familiar schools and cities: Folsom High School and Rio Americano High School, for instance, share the top award for large jazz ensembles on the high school level.

Plus, Folsom’s Jazz Combo I was recognized for its outstanding performances in the small jazz combo category, and its Jazz Choir I shared the top award for large vocal jazz ensemble with Valencia High School.

Local college students also tasted plenty of success in the awards. Sacramento State’s Vox Now, directed by Gaw Vang Williams, and American River College’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble, led by Arthur Lapierre, both came out on top among undergraduate competitors in the small vocal jazz group category. Sac State’s C-Sus Voices joined a group at the University of North Texas in claiming the award for graduate college outstanding performances in the small vocal jazz group category.

Even Folsom junior high school students got in on the act: The Sutter Middle School Jazz Band, under the direction of John Zimny, was recognized for outstanding performances by a large jazz ensemble, along with a junior high in Lafayette.

The Sacramento region has become so well-known for its jazz education programs, said Josh Murray, the band director at Rio Americano since 1998, that parents relocate to ensure their children can study in local programs. He directs Rio’s AM Jazz Ensemble, the group that the magazine recognized along with Folsom’s Jazz Band I as the nation’s top two large jazz ensembles. Curtis Gaesser is the longtime maestro at Folsom High.

Murray told me that he’s learned over the years not to take himself too seriously.

“If I do, the students will, too, and then everything becomes really, really serious,” he said. “Then the stress comes in. Whether you are teaching math or music or whatever, it should be fun. I’ve been teaching for 20 years now, and I still absolutely love it. I crack up with my students and at myself. When you’re dealing with 150 teenagers, there’s some crazy stuff, and if you can’t laugh at it or genuinely find humor in it, you’re going to have trouble.”

Rio Americano, Folsom High, ARC, CSUS and Sutter Middle have collectively won dozens of DownBeat awards over the years.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee