Honors jazz band inspires young musicians

​Johannes Wallmann's group provides instruction and inspiration to young instrumentalists throughout southern Wisconsin​.

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Johannes Wallmann is not the kind of guy who likes to rise at 6 a.m. As a UW-Madison jazz professor and pianist, he puts in late hours at rehearsals and concerts with college students and performing at local jazz clubs.

But when it comes to encouraging young musicians, he doesn’t hesitate to set his alarm. Some area high schools offer jazz not as a credited class, but as a sunrise elective. So every so often, Wallmann drops by at 7 a.m. to offer his insights, foster their enthusiasm for the genre and help them improve.

“It’s not necessarily the hour at which jazz is supposed to be played,” Edgewood High School band teacher Carrie Backman says wryly. “But Johannes comes at that hour, and puts in the extra effort.”

Every spring, however, Wallmann has the opportunity to invite the students to come to him through the UW High School Honors Jazz Band, which provides top-flight teaching to young instrumentalists throughout southern Wisconsin.

Wallmann established the program four years ago after he arrived at UW-Madison as the inaugural director of jazz studies,
funded by the John and Carolyn Peterson Charitable Foundation. It operates in much the same manner as the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras and Winds of Wisconsin.

Each April, following auditions, the honors band assembles at the School of Music to rehearse with Wallmann, the UW Jazz Orchestra, and a grant-funded guest musician.

This year, the guest was Bob Sheppard, a Los Angeles-based saxophonist who’s performed and recorded with the likes of Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Peter Erskine, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, and Stevie Wonder. Sheppard spent nearly a week on campus, holding master classes, rehearsals with both bands, and playing with each in the final concert April 29 at Music Hall.

This year’s band consisted of 20 musicians from eight high schools in three counties.

For some of the high schoolers, having a mere four rehearsals prior to the finale was their first taste of real-world pressure, all under the penetrating eyes of the experts. It’s a high hurdle for inexperienced players, says Edgewood’s Backman.

“In a typical high school setting, the students have quite a few weeks to prepare,” she says. “Here they have to challenge themselves to be good in a short time.”

And there was a twist: Cameras from Wisconsin Public Television recorded every rehearsal and the final concert, for an online video series geared to helping jazz instructors.

“We’re looking to make that knowledge available in a statewide level,” says project manager and co-producer Megan Aley. “We’ve captured so many fantastic teaching moments within these rehearsals.”

Inside Music Hall, with an audience full of parents, grandparents, family friends and teachers, hands clapped, heads bobbed and fingers snapped in time to the tempos.

Paired with Sheppard on one tune, West High jazz guitarist Xavier Lynn was clearly exulting, head swinging to the beat, knees bobbing up and down.

On “You Tell Me,” a Jim McNeely tune, Chance Stine, a sophomore saxophonist in the UW Jazz Orchestra, played a “dueling duet” with Sheppard. He, too, was grinning.

What better example of the Wisconsin Idea, Wallmann says. “It’s our version of research: serving the community, creating art and wonderful performances, and involving the public and students beyond campus,” he says.

And he’d be jazzed to know that a few new friendships formed over the past two weeks.

Jacob Brost, a sax player from Portage, can now count over a dozen other jazz fans as new acquaintances.

“I didn’t know anybody,” he says. “A lot of these people go to the same school, so they already know each other. And then there’s just me, from Portage.”

“I’m just grateful to have been given the opportunity to perform with all these people, who are really good. And Bob Sheppard is really good, too.”

Story courtesy of the School of Music.