Jazz at Perkiomen Valley High
Until now, my exploration of Skippack has focused mostly on the center of the village along Skippack Pike, the location of most of our shops and restaurants, where shopping, dining and entertainment provide ample material to keep me writing.
But there are many aspects of Skippack life unknown to me and, until now, unexplored. Today, I boldly go where no Skippack Blogger has gone before.
I am on my way to a rehearsal of the jazz band at Perkiomen Valley High School, the high school which serves Skippack and surrounding communities: Collegeville, Lower Frederick, Perkiomen, Schwenksville, and Trappe.
Accompanying me on my journey is Barbara Schang, owner of Schang-Hai Gallerie, in neighboring Creamery, Pennsylvania, and mom to two kids, both of them participants in the Perkiomen Valley High School music program; her son, now graduated, was a member of the jazz band.
Let’s listen to some jazz.
Skippack Blogger Goes Back to High School
The school’s music facilities are impressive: Large rooms with high ceilings for teaching, practice and rehearsing, shiny brass instruments, a xylophone, a gong, timpani drums, and walls decorated with trophies, plaques and banners from past music competitions.
The moment Barbara and I walk into the jazz band rehearsal, a horn line is blowing Woodchopper’s Ball. Man, they sound good. Barbara explains that all the kids are accomplished music students who must audition to participate in the band.
The band is led by David Overholtzer, director of the band programs at Perkiomen Valley High School. David teaches music full throttle: He gets everyone’s attention; conducts a music selection; scats out the melody; tries out different sections — the horns, the rhythm; provides an analysis of the students’ playing; instructs individuals on how to improve; adds a few words of friendly encouragement; tells a joke; keeps the pace of the class lively; and returns to conducting. The young horn players stand up: Out comes the jazz. Swing it, Mr. Overholtzer.
The students are attentive, occasionally laughing or indulging in short, private conversations while waiting for their parts. The rehearsal is demanding, both for the students and for Mr. Overholtzer, who is musician, teacher, guidance counselor, music critic and performer all at once.
Sitting in my metal chair in the back of the room, however, no demands are made on my ability to concentrate. As an observer, I am allowed the privilege of letting my thoughts wander, just as they did when I was a student sitting in class during my own high school days. My thoughts wander back to the time when I was the same age as these students, back to the time when I made that great discovery: Jazz music.
The Skippack Blogger’s Jazz Memories
I never studied a musical instrument. My jazz memories have nothing to do with school. I discovered jazz on the weekends. Living in the suburbs of Baltimore, my older brother would sometimes take me to a place downtown called the Famous Ballroom where we would see jazz shows put on by a group called the Left Bank Jazz Society.
Most audience members were well-dressed, middle-aged African-American men and women. How goofy I must have looked in my jeans and t-shirt. But it was my first taste, without parental supervision, of adult sophistication, the good life that comes with achieving independence and learning to appreciate finer things.
I saw piano great Earl “Fatha” Hines, who had played with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and the All Stars. Past age seventy but still vibrant, he and his back up musicians put on a great show.
I saw Houston Person, a tenor sax player who blew soulful, thick tones, play alongside vocalist Etta Jones. Check out her rendition of Don’t Go to Strangers, a great song for a town like Skippack. Houston Person is still living and playing music.
At venues other than the Famous Ballroom but around the same time, I saw more jazz greats who have since passed on: Stan Kenton, Count Basie and Sarah Vaughan come to mind.
My greatest jazz memory, indeed my greatest music memory of all time, was when I saw Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, grace the stage at the Lyric Opera House in Baltimore.
Ella Makes Her Entrance
Never will I forget; the entire audience got to their feet when Ella made her way to the microphone, a plain woman with thick glasses in her late-middle years, wearing a simple gown. No video or laser show announced her presence, just Ella and her fellas — four incredible jazz musicians.
When Ella hit her last note of St. Louis Blues, the sound was so beautiful, so perfect, that an elegantly-dressed woman sitting near me screamed.
But it is a not a scream from thirty-five years ago I am hearing now. A horn line from the Perkiomen Valley High School Jazz Band wakes me from my reverie; the clean, resonating sound betokening hours of practice by the students and the strength and optimism of their youth: The joy that comes from within our own heart and lungs.
More Than Just Music
The rehearsal ends, the students file out, and I leave with Barbara Schang, pleased that the program at the high school is focused on traditional jazz, music I associate with the happiest memories of my youth. I feel great having heard jazz played in a high school in my town.
Back in the car, Barbara turns toward me. ”The music program is about more than just the music,” she says. “Some of these kids struggle. They may be dealing with peer pressure, troubles at home or simply inner conflicts and plain old insecurity. There is always the fear that a kid will turn to drugs or crime. When a student takes up a musical instrument, it is a wonderful, positive step.”
Barbara continues, “David Overholtzer is not only a teacher and band director, he is a mentor to many of these kids. A teacher like David can completely turn a kid around.”
Come Out and Listen
On the wall of the rehearsal room is a sign which reads “Objective: Develop musical independence.” That pleases me. It summarizes the goal of all education: To enable kids to become independent. I think of the lyrics to one of my favorite jazz standards Summertime:
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And take the sky
(Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)
Before they take the solo flight described in this beautiful lyric, most kids do better if the people around them encourage their early, fledgling attempts at take off. And that is where we come in, dear reader.
The Perkiomen Valley High School Jazz Band performs at many competitions and community events from December through June. When student musicians take the stage, let us take our place in the audience, as parents, grandparents, friends, and, most importantly, as citizens of Skippack, the greatest small town in Pennsylvania, and her neighbor communities.
Thousands of people in small towns like Skippack across America come out for Friday night lights football, but how many in comparison come out to hear the high school jazz band? Nothing against high school football, but the skills students learn in music class will serve them for a lifetime.
Performances are open to all: People are welcome to attend regardless of whether they have children participating in the music program or attending high school. Public performances give residents of Skippack an opportunity to tell these fine young people that their early attempts at finesse and creative expression are worthwhile. We speak encouragement through our applause.
And the self-discipline and grace students learn through music will help them in whatever career they pursue, whatever twists and turns their road takes. Listen to our kids.
Note: The Weekly Bulletin, found in the right column of the Viking Band web page, includes information on jazz band performances and rehearsals.
Thank you Barbara Schang, owner of Schang-Hai Gallerie, for the idea for this post and for helping me out.