Making beautiful music

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Mead family takes in the sounds of Evergreen Jazz Festival

By Deb Hurley Brobst

Toe tapping, head bobbing and hand clapping abounded this past weekend as jazz enthusiasts listened to a host of bands during the 12th annual Evergreen Jazz Festival.

That was true for Pat, Anne and Jake Conroy of Mead, Colo., who took in the Jazz Festival for the first time. Pat and Anne, both 51, tagged along while their son Jake, 16, participated in the festival’s workshops for young jazz musicians.

Jake is a member of the Denver Jazz Club Youth All-Stars, having joined the group in May. The group came to the festival both to perform with and learn from the professionals.

This year’s festival, with more than 70 hours of music spread over four venues, showcased the talents of 10 bands playing traditional jazz, which is defined as ragtime, blues, Dixieland, boogie-woogie, swing and some big band.

Hundreds of people traversed the venues to listen to the local and out-of-state musicians.

True to its mission statement, the Evergreen Jazz Festival also provides one-on-one and small-group instruction to students who want to improve the jazz-playing craft.

A new passion

Jazz music now fills the Conroy home. Jake plays tenor and alto sax, and dabbles in flute and clarinet. In addition to the Denver Jazz Club Youth All-Stars, he plays with the Longmont All-Stars Jazz Band, and with the Mead High School jazz band and marching band.

Jake, a junior at Mead High School and also a member of the track team, took up alto saxophone in fourth grade but really began getting into jazz a couple of years ago. Now, it’s in his blood.

“Jazz is a way for me to express myself,” Jake said, “so I can show my kind of music. The music is more upbeat than a lot of classical music. I don’t want to be safe (when I’m playing).”

Jake likes the improvisation that is inherent in much of jazz music. He likes Dixieland and blues, but he’s still dabbling in other jazz forms.

Jake said he learned a lot over the weekend about the technical aspects of playing saxophone and playing jazz. He even had a private tutoring session with classical flutist Anne Barnhart, who performs with Jeff Barnhart in a group called Ivory and Gold.

Right now, he’s enjoying the music and performing, and he says music might be a career option.

A variety of jazz sounds

Anne Conroy took advantage of the event to listen to a variety of jazz music. She said that until her son started playing jazz, she really wasn’t into the music genre.

But she’s likes blues, Dixieland and jazz versions of songs she knows.

“We found we don’t like improvisational jazz as opposed to songs we’re familiar with,” she said.

Anne made a point of listening to swing band After Midnight, which had the crowd dancing; Joni Janak and Centerpiece Jazz; the Queen City Jazz Band; and the Carl Sonny Leyland Trio, which performs boogie-woogie and blues. She commented that it was fun to see performers enjoying what they were playing.

“That’s true blues music,” she said of one piece the trio performed.

She was looking forward to hearing the Poudre River Irregulars from Fort Collins and another Colorado group, the Bogalusa Strutters, who play New Orleans jazz.

The Evergreen Jazz Festival organizers begin each festival with a presentation on the history of jazz. This year, jazz pianist Jeff Barnhart spent two hours enthralling the audience of more than 80  — including Anne Conroy — with tales of the birth of jazz, especially with regard to the piano in the late 1890s, as he performed songs to illustrate his points.

Jazz, which began as ragtime, originally was performed on stringed instruments such as banjos and mandolins. Barnhart described the birth of jazz as ragtime and blues going away for a weekend, and jazz was born nine months later.

The composer and musician Scott Joplin, Barnhart said, changed the face of ragtime music with the “Maple Leaf Rag,” which he called America’s first national pop hit. The sheet music for the song has sold more than a million copies.

He discussed jazz legends Eubie Blake, Jelly Roll Morton and moved onto composers Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, explaining their roles in the evolution of a music style that is truly American.

A mission to support

For dad Pat Conroy, his son’s newfound passion for jazz has been educational. As Jake prepared to perform several songs with other students on Saturday, Pat discussed the new musical genre that has become important for the family.

“Jazz is a new thing for me,” said Pat, an electrical engineer. “Two years ago, I didn’t know anything about it. It’s obvious that not all jazz is the same.”

He’s enjoying watching his son grow into a jazz performer. At the concert on Saturday, the musicians were handed the progression of chords and told they would be doing improvisational solos.

“This is a real challenge for him,” Pat said.

He said he is happy to support his son’s musical passion.

“As a parent,” he said, “my role is to learn as much as I can so I can help motivate him.”

Contact Deb Hurley Brobst at deb@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1041.