It’s almost impossible to write about Jazz Juvenocracy and not use the word precocious.
The members of this three-year-old youth jazz band are so effervescent and witty, so hip and gifted, that no matter which way you shake it, precocious still comes to mind. Unless, of course, you consider the fact that last month the band was chosen out of 6,000 applicants to play at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival, an opportunity that came their way after former Moody Blues keyboardist Patrick Moraz, a Nokomis resident, heard the band play during its usual Sunday night gig at The Irish Rover Pub, in Gulf Gate.
“Precocious,” at this point, sounds almost patronizing.
One of the most prestigious jazz festivals in the world, The Montreux Jazz Festival has played host to everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Pink Floyd. For more than 43 years the two-week summer musical festival, held on the banks of Lake Geneva, in Montreux, Switzerland, has been regarded as the pinnacle venue for beloved jazz, rock and blues icons. Rarely is the opportunity enjoyed by teenage musicians.
“We bring a lot to the table besides age,” says Sam Andrews, the band’s 17-year-old piano player. “People come to see us because we’re children, but it’s almost irrelevant that we’re children because we play like professional musicians.”
It’s true. At 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night, the members of Jazz Juvenocracy could be trolling Facebook and watching TV. They could be downloading pop music or quibbling with their siblings. They could be doing a million things teenagers do on a weeknight — but they’re also rehearsing for this weekend’s Duke Ellington tribute concert at the Glendrige Performing Arts Center.
“We gotta raise $25,000,” says Bit Risner, the band’s 12-year-old trumpet player and founding member. “All the money we make at our concerts goes into our band fund, which we always use for educational purposes, but this year all of it is going to Montreux.”
Friday night’s performance at the Glenridge is already sold out, and the band is hoping Saturday night sells out, too.
The “Jazz Juvies,” as their friends call them, rehearse at Risner’s home off McIntosh Road three times a week. Most of their musical repertoire consists of songs their peers have never heard.
Their coach, Greg Nielsen, a band director at Booker Middle School for 24 years, says he can’t get his own band to play charts this difficult.
“They’re definitely functioning at a higher level of communication, both musically and creatively,” Nielsen says.
Even Risner, the band’s youngest member, carries herself like the female lead in an indie band. Wearing skinny plaid pants, a black vest and black eyeliner, Risner, who is home-schooled, isn’t intimidated by her older male band mates. And, despite her small stature, she appears years older.
“I’m the queen of the band,” Risner says, flipping her long hair over one shoulder. “Rodney and Brent are stuck at the hip. They’re jesters. Very loud, very obnoxious. Alex, he has more manners than everyone else. Sam is shy, but when he pipes up it’s cool, and once you get to know Tommy he’ll talk your ear off.
He’s very quiet and smart.”
Leaning in for a whisper, she asks, “See all that hair? That’s all brains under there. He got a perfect score on his SATs.”
If 17-year-old Tommy Silverman, a senior at Pine View School, heard Risner, he gives no indication. Sitting solemnly behind his music stand under a cloud of dark fuzzy hair — his signature afro — Silverman switches between playing the clarinet and alto sax. Unlike the other band members, he plans to pursue a career as a physicist not a musician.
“It’s the most fundamental science,” Silverman says. “It describes everything.”
Chugging on cans of Coke and Dr. Pepper, the members of Jazz Juvenocracy are hyper and hungry while Risner’s mother, Lisa, who lost the use of her living room years ago, passes in and out of the kitchen carrying pans of Bagel Bites.
“My mom’s the band manager, roadie and den mother,” Risner chirps as drummer Rodney Rocques, also a founding member, wails on his crash cymbals and hi-hat. “She knows these kids well. She has a lot of tolerance for them.”
The room is a cacophony of sounds and smells: Bagel Bites that smell like pizza and musicians who sound like weathered jazz virtuosos. Brent Layman, the band’s 15-year-old bass player, a sophomore at Booker High, blurts out that he could never listen to rap music, “but all that pop stuff” is unavoidable given that he has two sisters who always listen to the radio. He continues to lament, but the rest of his statements are lost in the sound of Rocques’ drumming.
“Rodney!” shouts saxophonist Alex Hernandez, 16, who serves as the band’s smooth-talking M.C. “Quiet!”
Rocques, who will start at Berklee College of Music next fall on a full scholarship, stops playing. Risner rolls her eyes.
“They play so well, you sometimes forget you’re dealing with middle-schoolers,” Nielsen says. “You see them socializing and they’re hanging from the chandelier, but I suppose that’s what makes them cute. People see them in a club and they think, ‘Oh they’re just kids,’ and then they hear them play and it’s like ‘whoa.’”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Bit Risner on why she doesn’t go by Elizabeth: “I was really little. Well, I still am. It used to be Bit-Bit, but now it’s just Bit.”
Alex Hernandez on being a kid musician: “When we first started playing, we heard, ‘You guys are fantastic, for kids.’ We don’t want to be fantastic for kids. We want to be better. We want to excel.”
Tommy Silverman on his trademark shades: “I wear the glasses because I don’t like looking at people while I play.”
Brent Layman on Duke Ellington: “As Miles Davis said, ‘Everyone should get down on their knees and thank Duke Ellington.’”
Rodney Rocques on learning the band was going to Montreux, Switzerland: “Bit texted me the news when I was taking a test. I got my phone taken away and a ‘B’ on the test.”
Sam Andrews on why he plays jazz: “Some say it requires the highest form of creativity. It’s intellectual and improvisational.”
IF YOU GO
Jazz Juvenocracy will play “A Night at the Cotton Club,” a Duke Ellington tribute, at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, at the Glenridge Performing Arts Center. For tickets, call 552-5325. For more on Jazz Juvenocracy or to make a donation to help cover the band’s airfare to Montreux, Switzerland, visit www.jazzjuvenocracy.com.
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