A Greenwich Village set and New York theme ties together the performances in the 62nd annual Hall High School Pops ‘n Jazz Extravaganza, opening March 13 in West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton. Photos by Ronni Newton, Steve McDonald, and Edwin DeGroat
Organizers of Pops ‘n Jazz call it an extravaganza, but that adjective may not even be strong enough to describe the amazing array of performances that take place on the stage at Hall High School during the annual event, now in its 62nd year.
This year, Hall’s acclaimed jazz bands, dancers, singers, and actors will get “Lost in New York” in the show set in Greenwich Village, but in the “best possible way,” as they perform music by Queen, Tower of Power, NY Voices, Justin Timberlake, and Lady Gaga. A few numbers from the Broadway shows Waitress and City of Angels will also be featured, along with some original jazz vocal compositions making their Connecticut premier.
Hours upon hours of rehearsal by Hall’s Jazz Band and Concert Jazz Band, Jazz Dancers, and Choraliers go into making Pops ‘n Jazz a truly professional production. Leading up to the show, the students rehearse Monday through Thursday from 6-9 p.m., and all day Sunday.
For budding singers, dancers, and musicians, being part of Pops ‘n Jazz is a rite of passage, an aspiration.
Parents are a part of the production’s success as well, donating time and energy to building the set, publicizing the show, and feeding the hungry teens – among many other duties.
The set design is done by Greg Sommer, who by day is an engineer for the Town of West Hartford. He serves as master carpenter, and Spencer Bazzano, as technical director, responsible for stage management, lighting, and audio.
“It’s the greatest thing ever,” said Catherine Flavin, one of the parent volunteers and the mother of a trombone player in the Concert Jazz Band. She is responsible for communications, and said there are thousands of human hours that go into each Pops ‘n Jazz show.
More than 100 Hall students – juniors and seniors – are involved in the production each year, as well as a slate of professionals who are invited artists and join the students for practice and invaluable mentoring moments. Pops ‘n Jazz co-producers James Antonucci, Emmett Drake, and choreography director Tessa Grunwald, brainstorm annually to determine who to invite.
Sometimes the guest performers are Hall alumni who have gone on to become accomplished musicians. While that’s not the case this year, Flavin is particularly excited about this year’s group – who are all female artists. “It’s perfect for the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage,” she said.
Each show is a bit different depending on the guest artist, and performers from Bristow and King Philip middle schools and the elementary schools that feed into Hall also have their night in the spotlight. For the younger students, being part of Pops ‘n Jazz gives them a chance to constructively engage with the high schoolers, and gives them a familiarity with the high school in advance, Flavin said.
While Pops ‘n Jazz is not exactly a musical play, it’s not a concert either.
“There’s a story line,” said Drake.
This year’s show is “Lost in New York.” The singing, dancing, and musical numbers are all woven together into vignettes as students find themselves in Greenwich Village.
Having a plot, which was something introduced to the show about three or four years ago, “provides opportunity for another element of performance,” Antonucci said. He, Drake, and choir director Brett Boles come up with the plot line and the kids write their own dialogue, he said.
Rather than choosing a musical and then finding students best suited to play certain roles, Pops ‘n Jazz instead is designed to showcase the students’ unique talents. “You get to feature the kids in the best possible light,” Antonucci said.
There are elements of musical theater, of jazz, of pop, and rock, said Drake. It’s well-balanced among all the disciplines, added Antonucci, with “multiple entrance points for the audience.”
Marji Siegel’s son, Toby, won a soloist award a few weeks ago at the National Jazz Festival in Philadelphia and is part of this year’s Pops ‘n Jazz. “To have this built in as part of the community, it’s been everything for Toby,” she said.
Rachel Schaumburger has twin daughters – Elena plays trumpet and Natalie plays saxophone in the Concert Jazz Band. Being part of Pops ‘n Jazz has “provided a really great leadership opportunity” as her daughters also work with the elementary school students who are part of the program and give private lessons. The camaraderie of the program is amazing as well, she said.
The foundation is there in the elementary schools, she said. “You have such strong music departments throughout West Hartford,” Schaumburger said.
For some, Pops ‘n Jazz becomes a family tradition. Nancy Kitz’s son was part of the program when he was a Hall student, and now her daughter Rose is in the show.
Chuck Coursey is in his 12th and final year of having a child in Pops ‘n Jazz. All five of his children have been part of the program as members of the Choraliers, and he said this being the last year is bittersweet.
“The kids put a lot of time and energy into it,” said Coursey. There’s such a sense of pride when the performances come together.
“This is one of the things that makes our schools so strong, makes West Hartford so desirable,” said Coursey. The music and theater experiences his kids had at Hall made such an impression that the four oldest have all done theater in college and the three who have graduated are all working in the theater industry. Ned, who is in the show this year, is a senior at Hall.
Flavin is so thankful for the administration and faculty support of the show throughout the years – not just support, but extreme enthusiasm. “When you watch the educators work together they’re just insanely dedicated. They do it for the love of the work,” she said.
“The commitment of our community and our administrative leaders to the arts is producing very positive results,” Hall Principal Dan Zittoun said. “Students work incredibly hard, learn to persevere, are brave, and collaborate in diverse, interdisciplinary teams, and doing so they gain skills that we all need in today’s world. Pops ‘n Jazz also contributes to our town’s reputation as a center of excellence in music and arts. With funding from the Goldfarb foundation, the program is designed to make the experience available to as many of us as possible, including a senior show and a sensory-friendly performance. Don’t miss it.”
Flavin said her father has been coming to the show for years, even before his grandson was involved in it, and is so impressed. “He said, ‘I don’t have to go to Broadway anymore, I can just go to West Hartford,'” she said.
“The students own the show,” said Antonucci.
“It’s a true community effort, year after year,” added Drake.
The video below, created by Educational and Technology Specialist Craig Diamond, provides a preview and synopsis of this year’s Pops ‘n Jazz.
When to see Pops ‘n Jazz
Pops ‘n Jazz opens Friday, March 13, and additional performances are March 14, 19, 20, and 21. Doors open at 7 p.m., and performances begin at 7:30 p.m.
A matinee performance will be held March 18 at 2 p.m. for seniors, retirees, and other community members.
Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for students and are available online at hallhighjazz.tix.com. All seating is assigned.
Tickets are also available at the Hall High box office, which is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Who is in each show
The program varies slightly each night, and “offers an array of American jazz classics from all eras, performed in big band and combo settings, highly choreographed jazz productions, and featured solo performances. The show is known for its eclectic blend of music, ranging from traditional and progressive jazz to pop-rock and Broadway,” the press release states.
Featured guest performers are tap dancer Sarah Reich (March 13), Lakecia Benjamin (saxophone) on March 14, vocalist Brianna Thomas (March 19), and Roxy Coss on saxophone (March 20). The Ellen Jeanne Goldfarb Memorial Charitable Trust supports the participation of guest performers.
Hall Junior Artists from Bugbee, Smith, Whiting Lane, and Aiken will perform on Friday, March 13.
King Philip Singers and Bristow Big Band will be part of the Saturday, March 14, show, and the King Philip Jazz Band will perform on Thursday, March 19.
Hall Junior Artists from Norfeldt and Morley will participate on March 20, and Sixth Dimension join the performance on March 21.
“The involvement of the younger students with exemplary older students is part of the wise design of West Hartford Public Schools to inspire effort and excellence,” organizers said.
Guest performer bios (provided by Hall)
Sarah Reich, a tap dance instructor, choreographer and performer, will take the stage on March 13. She is best known as a featured artist for Postmodern Jukebox, touring the U.S. and Europe in both 2015 and 2016. Sarah is developing new and exciting works with her company Tap Music Productions, including her debut Tap Jazz Album titled New Change. This album is originally produced, composed from percussive tap rhythms, and performed by a great selection of musicians to create a unique sound. She hopes this is just the beginning: “I want to be the first tap dancer to win a Grammy Award!”
Lakecia Benjamin, a charismatic and dynamic saxophonist/bandleader, will perform on March 14. Her electric stage presence and fiery sax work, has shared stages with Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, The Roots, Macy Gray and many others. In 2009 Benjamin had the honor of performing at the White House at President Obama’s inaugural ball. She brings the soul and funk up to a fever pitch in a show that’s guaranteed to keep crowds dancing day or night.
Brianna Thomas, an American jazz singer, will perform on March 19. Her singing is deeply enriched by an understanding of the masterful voices of jazz past. She has blazed a path in the world of jazz and continues a stellar ascent. With dedication, hard work, and a sparkling personality, Brianna is sure to become one of jazz’s most prominent voices. The words of legendary trombonist Curtis Fuller best illustrate Brianna Thomas’ abilities, hailing her as a “marvelous new artist who has all it takes to reach the top of the jazz profession and music in general.” Her style has been compared to Ella Fitzgerald’s.
Roxy Coss – a musician, composer, bandleader, recording artist, educator and activist – will perform on March 20. Coss has become one of the most unique and innovative Saxophonists on the scene. Winner of a 2016 ASCAP Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award, the Downbeat Critics’ Poll listed her as a “Rising Star” on Soprano Saxophone the past five years in a row, and a Downbeat Magazine review called her “An exceptional young talent.” Roxy is the Founder of Women In Jazz Organization, a collective of over 300 professional jazz musicians who identify as women or non-binary. WIJO intends to help level the playing field, so that women and non-binary people have equal opportunity to participate in and contribute to the jazz community, leading to an improved and more rich, diverse, and successful art form.
Accolades (from a news release)
The West Hartford Public Schools have received the Kennedy Center Award for Excellence in Arts Education in recognition of their program. The Hall Concert Jazz Band was one of 15 national finalists in the 2018 and 2019 Essentially Ellington Competition at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis. They won six outstanding soloist awards including: Gavin Baker (bass trombone), Val Barrieau (clarinet), Gavin Gray (bass), Eli Heinen (trombone), Brennen Ravenberg (guitar) and Noah Yontef Mathog (tenor sax). The Concert Jazz Band won first place for the third time in four years at the Berklee School of Music Jazz Festival in Boston on Jan. 26, 2019. Jason Hoopes (piano) received the Berklee Outstanding Musicianship Award. In 2015, Choraliers won the “Together in Song” regional choral award through WGBY in Massachusetts.
And these students have gone on to do great things. Hall Concert Jazz Band alumni include renowned jazz musicians Jimmy Macbride (drums), Garrett Sayers (bass), Drew Sayers (sax), Richie Barshay (drums), Joel Frahm (tenor sax), Erika von Kleist (alto sax, flute & piccolo)Brad Mehldau (piano), Pete McGuinness (trombone), Noah Preminger (tenor sax), Alexa Tarantino (alto sax), and Gregg Kallor (piano).
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