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These Cats Are Cool

Hunter Button, left, and Paxton Earl, right, play in a KYJO performance.
New youth jazz orchestra fills niche in local music scene

The next best thing to watching a professional jazz orchestra perform is watching a youth jazz orchestra perform, especially one that’s newly minted, as the Kalamazoo Youth Jazz Orchestra is.

The 18-member KYJO includes high school musicians from 10 school districts and one home school. On a late afternoon in February, the orchestra visited Woods Lake Elementary to perform for Kids in Tune, an after-school orchestra program supported by the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, Communities in Schools and the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

A couple of rapt young boys perched on the stage behind the drummers, surveying each move and swinging their legs to the beat as Director Benje Daneman led the KYJO through “Tiptoe,” a standard by Thad Jones.

When the song finished, Daneman asked the KIT students how the music made them feel, and they responded with words like “smooth,” “happy,” “hungry” and “cool.” These jazz musicians are hip — they’re finger-snapping, toe-tapping, head-nodding cats.

Launched last fall, the KYJO offers high school youth the opportunity to connect with others who love jazz and want to make music at a higher level while also being exposed to professionals in the field. With rehearsals every other week, the audition-only orchestra came together quickly and was much more successful that Daneman anticipated. Students and their families have been enthusiastic.

“Emotionally, I connect my life with jazz a lot more than I do with other music,” says Roger Roets, a junior saxophonist from Hastings. “There’s not many people in my school who are actually like me in this way. There’s so much talent here. It really ups my game.”

Paxton Earl, a senior tenor saxophonist from Vicksburg, agrees. “Everyone is a friend and wants to help. We have something very special.”

Daneman is excited to realize a longtime dream with the KYJO. “This project has been simmering in my mind for years,” he says.

Creating JCI

In 2014, he and his wife jazz vocalist Ashley Daneman, and pianist Nich Mueller launched the Jazz & Creative Institute (JCI), a Kalamazoo-based organization that uses educational programs, mentoring and performances to help budding musicians create a life in the arts. It initially offered a high school summer camp called JazzStart, but the organization went dormant when the Danemans moved briefly back to New York, where they had met during jazz school. “We always had these visions for a hub to support jazz musicians,” Daneman says.

After the youngest of their three daughters was born, the Danemans returned to Kalamazoo in 2016 to be closer to family. As a WMU graduate and trumpeter with a degree in music education and jazz studies, Benje Daneman was returning to his old stomping grounds.

“When we moved back, we wanted to start laying down some heavier roots,” says Daneman, who assumed his new position as education manager of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra the day after he unpacked the moving van. The vision for the JCI, which had never quite died, suddenly expanded.

As rich with musical offerings as Kalamazoo is, particularly with a well-regarded jazz studies program at WMU, Daneman still believed there was “a desert of jazz education in the Kalamazoo region.” He wrote a grant proposal to the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo to create a youth jazz orchestra. The proposal included a budget, planned partners for the organization and the design of the season. “If this goes through, I said, I’m going to do it. And it did,” he says.

WMU jumped on board with faculty support from Bradley Wong, Keith Hall and Andrew Rathbun, among others. “The whole department is super-excited,” Daneman says. “They house us. We rehearse there. They are allowing us to use their recital hall for our final concert.”

‘So Much Interest’

What Daneman couldn’t have anticipated was the amount of interest and talent the audition call would generate. “There was so much interest we had overflow,” he says.

So the KYJO formed a second group, the Kalamazoo Youth Jazz Lab Band, a septet representing five schools and made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores and serves as a primer band for the KYJO. Good thing, too, since one-third of the KYJO members will be graduating this spring, with several heading off to music school for jazz studies.

“The concept of jazz is really a collective conversation in music,” Daneman says, “and it’s something that everyone can contribute their voices to. This is music that is not just about music, it’s about standing for something. As an improviser, it’s about an individual voice, about having an individual contribution. It’s not just notes on a page.”

Andrew Stone, a senior drummer from Parchment, agrees. “If someone is soloing, they are speaking a language and the other musicians are speaking the same language and communicating with each other,” says Stone. “It’s always interesting to hear what someone is saying. The saxophone’s solo today is not going to be the same this week as it was last week.”

Just as performers aren’t sure how a jazz standard will come together in front of a new audience, Daneman isn’t quite sure in what ways the JCI or KYJO will grow, but his long-term goal is to serve not only the youth jazz musicians of Kalamazoo, but professional and semi-professional jazz musicians in the area. The JCI has added individual jazz and improvisation lessons for all levels and its leaders are considering providing a big-band experience for adults.

On Daneman’s longest days — which include his day job at the KSO and two rehearsals — going to the KYJO rehearsals reinvigorates him, he says. “The kids are so geeked out about acting professional and making amazing music, and it’s just exciting to see the fire,” he says. “The most rewarding part of it is seeing these kids are being fed in the way that they desire.”

Theresa Coty O'Neil

Theresa, who has a deep and inspired knowledge of the local arts community, writes for Encore when she has a few spare moments between being a full-time English faculty member at an online university, president of the Board of Directors of the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony Society and a mom with three active and busy kids. A poet and writer herself, Theresa introduces us to new author Tony Gianunzio, who, at 92, has published his first book.

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