Jazz program hits right note for SCHS

12th Rolling Meadows win, performance at Purdue shows musicians back to pre-pandemic levels
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Shawano Community High School’s jazz program was on full display at the annual Shazz festival over the weekend, but the bands have been showing elsewhere why they’re among the best high school bands around.

Christopher Kent, band director, said the signs were there when the bands performed at the Purdue Jazz Festival on Jan. 21. Having won the festival on a regular basis before COVID-19, the Jazz I band did not win anything last year, but this year, the students clawed their way back to third place.

“Down there, we’re not competing against bands that are our size,” Kent said, referring to the schools’ student population. “We’re competing against larger high schools, and they’re 4,000 kids. You’re talking schools that are four, five, six times the size of ours.”

Kent noted that the Jazz II band performed well, considering that, for many of the students, this was their first jazz competition.

The students did not stop there, however. The Rolling Meadows Jazz Festival was next on Feb. 25, another event where SCHS usually wins, and the Jazz I band scored its 12th first-place finish this year. Kent noted that the band won last year’s event by four points, but this year’s event showed a 23-point gap between SCHS and its second-place competitor, the largest gap among the four classes of competition.

“The kids walked in, and the improvement from Purdue to Rolling Meadows was astounding,” Kent said. “We were the last band in the room, and the judges had almost nothing to pick on.”

Rolling Meadows also saw SCHS junior Ben Langlois win the outstanding soloist award for his work with the soprano saxophone, and the Jazz II band, although it didn’t place at the top, outperformed two 4A division bands that day; SCHS is a 1A division band.

“There were at least 50 kids who soloed that day,” Kent said. “That’s a huge honor.”

For Kent, the sign of a great band is when the members “coalesce” into a single entity, hitting their marks and presenting a song that’s nearly flawless. When the Jazz I band performed at Purdue, he saw that merging and realized the jazz program was back where it was before the pandemic, where constant work and rehearsal turned Shawano into a force to be reckoned with.

“I was so happy once they finished, because I saw something I’d been waiting to see since COVID,” Kent said. “I didn’t even care where we placed, because I saw the band completely mesh. They had so much fun playing together and performing together.”

Kent believes there’s nowhere to go but up from there. After the Shazz performance, which SCHS cannot win because it’s the hosting school, the jazz bands will be going to Eau Claire in April to perform at an event that is has not been in years.

“We are back to where we were pre-COVID, and then some,” Kent said. “The program has bounced back from where it was, and I only have four seniors in that group.”

With only the potential loss of a few musicians, Kent is confident that the jazz bands will continue to maintain their level of excellence, making them a source of pride for the community.

“They’re having so much fun together. They’re just playing,” Kent said. “In December, I didn’t know which way it was going to go, because I was pushing. I had to be the push to get them past a point. When they did what they did at Purdue, even though we took third, I was ecstatic, because I knew we’d turned the corner.”