Some of the best and brightest young musicians in Denver play jazz at the Denver School of the Arts under the baton of Dave Hammond, director of bands there for 18 years.
“Most of our students will major in music,” said Hammond, a percussionist, composer and trombonist. “But many tremendous musicians are talented in other areas and some will go into engineering, math or biology, and minor in music. Our music majors go to some of the best music colleges: the Manhattan School of Music, The Juilliard School and Berklee College of Music.”
The Denver School of the Arts Jazz Workshop Orchestra, a 22-piece big band, will play at the Five Points Jazz Festival May 16 on the Youth Stage, 27th and California, 11:30am to 12:30pm. The group, comprised of five saxophones, three trombones, four trumpets, a rhythm section and vibraphone, recently placed fourth at the invitational Swing Central Jazz Competition in Savannah—a prestigious distinction.
DSA is represented at the Five Points Jazz Festival every year. “It’s an honor for the students to be there with the great players,” said Hammond. “And they learn the history of the area—like that Duke Ellington played at the Rossonian in Five Points.
“They love to perform, to show what they can do. We’ll do our set from the Georgia competition, which includes some Ellington and a Thad Jones/Mel Lewis arrangement that is very intricate and deep. They had to practice a lot to get it right.”
“Getting it right” to have a career in music isn’t easy. Hammond helps his students prepare for the challenges and requirements of that career choice. “We teach the rigors of music to prepare students for the competition they’ll face,” said Hammond. “Kids come to DSA in sixth grade, so we get ’em young and they get used to the amount of work it takes to be considered a decent musician. Kids here understand what it takes to prepare. It’s not an easy career, but it’s fulfilling to be surrounded by people doing what they love to do.”
Rico Jones, 17, has studied music at DSA since the sixth grade. “I found my love for jazz at the DSA,” said Jones, a saxophonist. “It’s fun to get together with friends and rehearse. Once you know a piece, it’s like a conversation between friends, musically speaking. Music creates a sense of community for me. It’s crazy exciting to play Five Points, when you think of the great artists who were there.”
Beyond the rigors of music education, young musicians must also be good communicators, Hammond said. “We teach them to be good communicators, to work well in different situations, and talk to people in an open and positive way. Being temperamental won’t cut it because the competition is through the roof. If you’re not easy to get along with, they can find someone else. Famous musicians who had an ‘attitude,’ like Miles Davis, might not have made it today.”
Hammond studied the trombone from age 6 and became a professional percussionist. He brings working musicians into his classroom to share their experience and expertise with the kids. A goal is to groom more girls for jazz careers. “Girls are interested up to about ninth grade, until they realize how male-dominated jazz is. I bring in great female jazz artists as role models, including drummer Allison Miller and saxophonist Melissa Aldana.”