January 3, 2024

January is Show Time for PHS Studio Band; Big Band Dance, Jazz Festival Coming Up

JAMMIN’ IN LONDON: The Princeton High School (PHS) Studio Band recently returned from a trip to London, where it recorded an album at the Abbey Road Studios and presented three additional concerts. The group is currently preparing for performances at the Big Band Dance on January 12 and the 2024 Princeton Jazz Festival on January 26 and 27, both at PHS. (Photo courtesy of Joe Bongiovi)

By Donald Gilpin

There are no winter doldrums for the Princeton High School (PHS) Studio Band, which is back from its recording session at the Abbey Road Studios in London and is now preparing to host a Big Band Dance in the PHS cafeteria on January 12, then the two-day 2024 Princeton Jazz Festival on January 26-27 in the PHS Performing Arts Center.

The annual Festival, in its 17th year at PHS, is the largest educational jazz festival in New Jersey and will feature more than 700 student musicians. A middle school competition will take place on January 26, and a high school competition on January 27. Education clinics will be held for all festival participants, and there will be special sets both evenings starring guest artist and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker and acclaimed tenor saxophonist Ava Rovatti performing with the PHS Studio Band.

“The energy level that the students provide with the music makes an unforgettable experience,” said PHS Studio Band Director Joe Bongiovi, founder of the PHS Jazz Festival and currently in his 18th year at PHS. He emphasized the power of live performance, “seeing and hearing great live music.”

He continued, “Even if you don’t think you’re a jazz fan, the music that you’ll hear is from all sorts of genres. We always try to program something for everyone.”

Under Bongiovi’s direction the Studio Band has placed first many times over the years at the Berklee Jazz Festival, and has won the New Jersey State Championship four times.

“The success of our program is based on the fact that we have an opportunity for everybody to play, and they can choose how much they want to put into it to get better,” he explained. “We offer these great educational experiences, and these kids want to do this, so they keep working harder and harder. We keep providing them with experiences, and they keep living up to the challenges.”

The January 12 Big Band Dance features the Studio Band and the Jazz Ensemble, the two most advanced bands in the high school, with songs from the 1940s to the present. The PHS cafeteria becomes a dance hall from 7 to 10 p.m., according to Bongiovi. “We serve snacks, and people get up and dance,” he said. “It’s one of several fundraisers during the year to keep the bands going.”

He went on to describe the process at the Jazz Festival on January 26-27. The student musicians come in at 6 p.m. — middle schoolers on the first night, high schoolers on the second night — and do an hour-long clinic with Brecker and Rovatti, then perform for three independent adjudicators and present a sight-reading piece for a fourth adjudicator.

“Basically the whole process is how to get better,” Bongiovi said. “The whole thing is educational and fun and it ends with a concert.” Starting at 9 p.m. on both nights, the Studio Band will be playing with Brecker and Rovatti.

Bongiovi pointed out the importance of the fact that the Princeton Public Schools band program, with six bands at the high school alone, is its own feeder program.  “The Studio Band is the top band, mostly comprised of juniors and seniors who have worked their way up through the other  bands. We have a great middle school program that feeds us. Once the kids get to the high school they usually have a couple of years with us before they get to the Studio Band or the Jazz Ensemble. Both those groups play at such a high level, and the kids are working really hard to get there.”

In early December all 39 members of the Studio Band traveled to London, where they spent three, 10-hour days at the renowned Abbey Road Studios, recording an album with Brecker and Rovatti. Now in the mixing and mastering stages, this album will be the second one that Bongiovi and the PHS Studio Band have created there. The first was recorded in September 2019.

This time the group spent a total of nine days in London, where they also played two concerts at their hotel and another at a church.

Bongiovi pointed out how the education provided through the PHS bands goes beyond just music to teaching life skills, dealing with setbacks and adversity, learning to work with others, and more.

“They also learn that if they put their energy into it and they’re authentic, and if they put 100 percent into it and if they find other people who think like they do, then magical things can happen,” he said. “We work with them every year, the same kids for four years, and we can develop a relationship with them through the four-year progression.”

All proceeds from ticket sales, contributions, and concessions for the Big Band Dance and the Princeton Jazz Festival benefit the PHS Band program. Visit princetonjazz.org for tickets to both events and more information.