February 19, 2014

PHS Musicians Sweep the Awards At National High School Jazz Festival

Princeton High School’s jazz ensembles are used to winning awards. The nearly 150 students who participate in the school’s band program have been recognized over the years at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival in Boston.

But at this year’s 46th annual festival on February 8, held in front of some 5,000 people at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center, PHS musicians outdid themselves. They nabbed first place in three categories: Large Ensemble, Small Ensemble, and Vocal Jazz.

“This is the first time ever in the history of the festival that the same school has won first place in all three categories,” said Joe Bongiovi, PHS’s band director. “It’s the fifth year we’ve won for Large Ensemble. For Small Ensemble and Vocal Jazz, it’s our first win (in first place). And it’s the first time our combo has won; we’ve been second or third before.”

The eight singers and four instrumentalists in the Vocal Ensemble ranked fifth last year, said Mr. Bongiovi, who also directs the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra. To make the jump to first place this year, the group performed jazz arrangements of three songs. “One was a Beyonce tune, ‘Crazy in Love,’ in twenties or thirties jazz style,” he said. “Then they did an a cappella version of an Adele song, her cover of The Cure’s ‘Love Song. Last was a jazz standard, ‘I Want to be Happy.’”

Five of the students were also recognized for their individual efforts: Joe Bell, Aditya Raguram, Michelle Bazile, Katherine Gerberich, and Ananth Balasubramanian.

It is the broad nature of jazz that makes it so appealing to students, Mr. Bongiovi believes. “The nice thing about jazz is that it covers so many different styles,” he said. “We’ve infused pop into it. We’ll do a lot of Michael Jackson songs with the band, for example. The instrumentations and arrangements really allow us to do so many different things. And the kids see a timeline of how it’s all connected.”

Mr. Bongiovi, who is a distant relative of rocker Jon Bon Jovi, encourages his students to study classical music. “Most of them take private lessons. Some of them go to Westminster Conservatory or have independent private teachers,” he said. “It’s really important. We apply the techniques they learn to what we’re doing.”

The festival, billed as the biggest event of its kind in the United States, is staged by the Berklee College of Music, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world. Professors from the college serve as judges for the more than 200 schools that participate.

Mr. Bongiovi has been taking students to the festival for years. For chaperone duties, he always invites music teachers from local elementary and middle schools because of their enduring relationships with the students.

“It’s funny. Unlike English or math class where you see these kids one year and you’re done, the music teachers see them year after year after year,” he said. “The connection is really great, because we know them as people, not just as students. So this year, we had teachers from Littlebrook, Riverside, Community Park, John Witherspoon, and Cranbury schools come along. Everyone was proud.”