Jazz music, which has existed for over a century, is alive and well in Whatcom County. Bellingham Youth Jazz Band (BYJB) is among many groups that allow young and old to enjoy modern performances of jazz classics.

Director Mark Kelly started BYJB in 1997 as a feeder program for local middle and high schools. Local nonprofit The Jazz Project sponsors the band, and Whatcom County Parks and Recreation provides weekly rehearsal space at the Bellingham Senior Activity Center.

“Over the 23 years of its existence, the BYJB has seen kids from more than just Bellingham participate,” Kelly says, “including most Whatcom County and some Skagit County schools.” BYJB provides ample opportunities for students to hone their craft.

Opportunities for Students

Current band or orchestra students with at least one year of playing experience can join Bellingham Youth Jazz Band with tuition. “Interested students learn to play in the jazz style, including swing, Latin, and other relative rhythmic variations,” says Kelly. They perform over 40 concerts annually, with options to solo, sing, compose, and play in small combos.

Bellingham Youth Jazz Band generally follows the 18-piece big band standard. Photo credit: Ken Harrison

“Students will learn over 20 jazz standards each year, which are the foundation of newer compositions that they will encounter in high school, college, and beyond,” Kelly says.

BYJB uses standard big band instrumentation of five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, and a rhythm section of bass, drums, guitar, and piano. Sometimes they include instruments such as tuba and bassoon.

“Finding good arrangements that are playable by young musicians is the key to making the band sound good and be enjoyable for all players,” says Kelly. “When those elements come together, we actually recreate the sound that originated back when these tunes were new.”

BYJB has improved students’ stage presence, musicality, technique, and scheduling skills for more than two decades. Students share camaraderie as they meet other musicians they might not normally cross paths with, from different schools or districts.

BYJB owns over 100 big band and 40 combo arrangements, several woodwind and brass horns, electric pianos, a PA system, music stands, and more. Every spring, the band visits a professional recording studio to make CDs of the year’s repertoire.

Intergenerational Connections

Bellingham Youth Jazz Band’s community partners include Bellingham Community Band, Mt. Baker Theatre Organ Society, and countless individuals that make small and large donations to keep things running. Every year, the public donates to fundraiser dances held in February and July.

This Village Green performance from 2013 is one of Bellingham Youth Jazz Band’s many collaborations with older musicians. Photo credit: Ken Harrison

BYJB performs at nursing and retirement homes, dances, theaters, parks, and fairs. Notable concerts include the Children’s Art Walk at Lightcatcher in May, Art of Jazz concert at Samson Estates Winery in July, Village Green with the Swing Connection big band in August, and the Holiday Port Festival and Holiday Festival of the Arts in December.

“When we play joint concerts such as the Village Green event, where we’re playing alongside musicians 30 to 50 years our senior, the timelessness of the repertoire is apparent,” Kelly says. “You can see the connection with the audience at many of our retirement/nursing home concerts; the music literally brings them back in time and memory.”

Kelly received the Mayor’s Arts Award and San Juan Music Educator’s “Friend of Music” award in 2000 and 2008, honoring the band’s generational bridging.

“When we finish a concert at any given venue, it’s hard to start packing up,” Kelly says, “because I have so many residents come up to me expressing their joy in hearing the young musicians playing music of their time.”

Shaping the Future of Jazz

Kelly, who will retire in 2022, says the band is seeking a new director who can continue introducing young musicians to America’s art form of jazz music. In the meantime, the band’s influence is here to stay.

In Bellingham Youth Jazz Band, students from multiple local middle schools and high schools get to play together. Photo credit: Ken Harrison

“Almost every week, I run into a past member, or parent, or someone that has heard the band play, and for the most part, they express a positive experience with the group,” Kelly says. “I’ve watched several students go on to professional careers in music, and have written many letters of recommendation to students seeking college entrance or job referrals.”

High school and college band directors have often told Kelly that their job of running jazz band is made easier by the fact that the incoming freshmen already know how to swing and improvise, which, Kelly says, “was the original goal of the band when I started it.” Many students go on to professional programming such as The Jazz Project’s annual concerts.

“The Jazz Project provides a window on the world of jazz and ensures that one of the best views is right here in Whatcom County,” adds Jazz Project Director Jud Sherwood. “The BYJB gets the first entry and a front row seat.”

BYJB’s website lists upcoming concerts and contact information for auditions, so you can enjoy being transported back to the Jazz Age.

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