HomeLocal High School Impresses at the 41st Annual UNC-Greeley Jazz Festival

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As a member of the multi-year repeating international award winning "Sound of the Rockies" (SOR) barbershop chorus in Centennial, Colorado, my interest was piqued in mid-April to receive an email invitation from Darin Drown, SOR's music director, to come to a performance by Aurora, Colorado's Grandview High School Jazz Choir, which he also directs. The a cappella jazz choir had been asked to present their work for that week's show in the performing arts series at Calvary Baptist church in south Denver. Experiencing first hand that Drown was a highly-skilled musical technician, teacher and motivator, I wondered how mature an ensemble sound could be developed by a high school choir, even with him at the helm. Arriving at the church on the evening of April 13th and seeing that a stage and a high-quality sound system had been put in place to convert the church gym into an auditorium for the evening's performance, I pulled up a front row center seat, hopeful, but not certain what to expect.

No doubt you've experienced it. When a high-quality singing group starts performing, you know within the first couple measures that you're in the presence of something very special. The show has only started and the joint is already jumpin' and you simply cannot resist interjecting a pleased "Oh yeah!" as you sit back and start swinging to the music right there in your seat. So it was that evening. The choir performed several tunes from the Swing Era, songs from The Real Group, Swingle Singers, m-pact, and many others, almost always on perfect pitch and rhythm. Several short and not-so-short solos convinced the audience that these sixteen singers (see photos below) were individually and collectively several notches above what would normally be expected from a high school choir. All the soloists were quite good, but I was particularly impressed by Richie Lawson, a 17-year old senior with a deep, smooth, country-style voice that satisfies the soul like the taste of a rich, marshmallow and cinnamon topped hot cocoa on a cold night and by Allie Noble, also a senior, who did a solo rendition of "God Bless The Child" that if you closed your eyes and didn't know better, you'd think was Norah Jones doing the great Billie Holiday version. The whole evening's performance was very impressive and the audience gave enthusiastic standing ovations after most songs, with a resounding standing O at the end.

During the song intros in the course of the ninety minute performance, Darin Drown had mentioned that the group was scheduled to compete against other high school jazz choirs at the 41st annual UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival on April 28th in Greeley, Colorado. Being a barbershop competitor myself, I was very interested in seeing whether other high school groups were technically and artistically on the same plane as Grandview, so I began mentally thinking of how I could re-arrange my schedule so I could attend.

The following evening, during the break at the normal SOR weekly rehearsal, I approached Darin and told him how impressed I had been with the choir and asked if I could come by one of their rehearsals to take photos and perhaps even interview some of the singers, expecting to publish this article and he thought it was a good idea. So one morning prior to the Greeley event, I showed up at the high school for a photo shoot, got processed through the school's security system and was escorted to the group's rehearsal room.  At the next song break, Darin introduced me briefly to the group and told them I'd be taking photos of them during rehearsal and that I would chat with them a bit a little later and they continued their rehearsal.. Since they were on a tight schedule getting ready for the Jazz Festival event, I opted not to take valuable rehearsal time for interviews, instead just briefly telling them I was a Colorado ambassador for the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA) and was planning to write an article about them and they responded favorably, seeming quite enthused about the prospect of seeing their names and faces "in print". Before leaving, I told them to "break a leg" in Greeley and that they could count on seeing me in the audience.

The largest event of its kind in the nation, the UNC/Greeley Jazz Festival brings together internationally recognized artists, jazz lovers, award-winning clinicians, and over 275 college, high school, and middle school big bands, combos, and jazz vocal groups from across the country. Each year, over 7,500 participants enjoy the week-long main stage concerts, after-hours sessions, daytime performances, and the many educational workshop sessions.

The high school sessions at Greeley turned out not to be competitions, but individual half-hour performances by dozens of choirs, each critiqued by very knowledgeable vocal jazz clinicians. Since the events were taking place in multiple venues simultaneously, I couldn't hear all the performances, but I did arrive early so I could compare the quality of groups both before and after the Grandview session. Some choirs were accompanied, but about half sang a cappella. I was impressed by all the groups, but the a cappella groups were all much more confident and of higher musical presentation quality than the accompanied groups, which generally appeared to consider themselves as secondary to the bands, in some cases fairly drowned out by the instruments, resulting in lower quality singing performances. One other a cappella choir, Denver East High School, was also notably very good, although somewhat inconsistent. Some numbers would be excellent, only to be followed by a song that went noticeably flat or displayed timing inconsistencies. Grandview was clearly heads and shoulders above all the groups I observed, with consistent high quality throughout. They did a lot of the same repertoire I had seen at their prior performance, finishing up with a rocking Michael Jackson medley that kept the entire audience moving and rocking in their seats. Many of their songs prompted enthusiastic standing ovations, with a long lasting, resounding huzzah at the end of the Jackson medley. The post-performance clinician who delivered the critique stated how impressed she was by the quality performances and said her comments would be at the level she would normally impart to professional performers. She also singled out the amazing, smooth basso voice of Richie Lawson, saying she expected to hear great things from this promising young man in the future.
All in all, the Grandview singers had clearly polished their performance skills to a level not normally attained by high school vocal groups.

When kids graduate from high school, their lives often transition sharply. These young men and women all love singing today, but in a few months or years, how many of them are likely to be appearing on stage? We can only hope these remarkable musicians will re-appear in new incarnations.

This quality of performance could never be achieved without a very high level of coaching and training. Jazz and a cappella enthusiasts can all be grateful for the superior musical knowledge and coaching skills of teachers like Darin Drown. In their capable hands, the future of vocal jazz in America appears to be going strong.

Richie Lawson, Senior
Kaylin Darst, Senior
Courtnee Jackson, Senior
Ben Seagren, Junior
Aspen Schleser, Junior
Danny Berg, Senior
Tony Esparza, Senior
Katie Willard, Junior
Jarek Bird, Senior
Allie Noble, Senior
Weston Cowden, Senior
Sheridan Blanford, Senior
Jessica Williams, Senior
Grant Brown, Senior
Mandy Olguin, Senior
Nick Andrews, Junior

About the author:
(Dane Hutchins is a Colorado Ambassador for the Contemporary A Cappella Society of America (CASA)) 
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