MASON CITY — Like a human metronome, NIACC professor Leon Kuehner took the stage lightly slapping his palm on his knee to help high school jazz musicians find its pulse.
“1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, ah 1, 2, 3, 4...”
At the North Iowa Area Community College Jazz Festival, local students get the opportunity each year to show off their musical talent.
The two-day event is set up like a clinic for musicians in high school ensemble bands to have their styles critiqued — both soloists and as a group — without the pressure of competition.
Since it started 20 years ago, founder and NIACC Band Director John Klemas said he wanted it to provide a constructive learning experience for aspiring jazz players without access to the resources and experienced musicians in a larger city.
For players, it’s “confirmation that, yeah, you’re doing OK,” he said.
Often, without having widespread exposure to jazz, picking it up for younger players can be a challenge said Mike Giles, a jazz and saxophone instructor at Iowa State University.
“It would be like trying to speak a foreign language without ever having heard someone speak it before,” he said.
Jazz is “euphoric, because there’s an improvising element to it,” he said. “There are a myriad of styles that you can know. And the deeper and more esoteric you can get with it, the more fascinating it becomes.
“Especially at the younger age (you have to) make an effort to listen to it,” he said. “Their homework is the best kind of homework: go listen to some music, you know what I mean?”
Mason City’s set included tunes like “Cold Duck Time” by Eddie Harris, “Bird Count” by Maria Schneider and “Without Joan” by Sam Falzone via the Don Ellis Band.
“The thing that’s nice about it is it helps us improve as a group,” said Mason City senior Tryiston Tekippe, 17. “There’s different ways to (play). A lot of people overthink the soloing.”
Challenges on stage varied.
After five years on the trumpet, doctors told Clear Lake sophomore Karter Anderson he might never play again.
Anderson, 16, fell from the bleachers at a high school football game in 2013, knocking out one front tooth and chipping seven others.
He switched to tuba but missed the classic sound of the trumpet.
After adjusting his playing technique, he decided to pick the instrument back up last summer after X-rays showed he wouldn’t cause long-term damage to the injury.
He felt being back and ready to play for his second year was a major accomplishment.
Participating schools included Mason City, Clear Lake, Belmond-Klemme, Central Springs, Algona and the NIACC jazz ensemble.