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Lincoln Middle School Jazzes It Up

As the carefree days of summer vacation await eager young students across the US, one class in southern California is working hard to stay focused on its favorite activity, playing jazz.

Santa Monica, California may be known for the balmy breezes along its world-famous pier, but it also has a reputation for great public schools. In particular, Lincoln Middle School, which offers an esteemed music program for students in grades six through eight. Walk the halls at the end of the day, and you might hear the jazz band recording their version of Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser."

Anyone can join

According to the school's Music Director Mark Hunt, joining the orchestra, chorus or jazz band is an option for students at any level, especially beginners.

"We do have some students who come in and have played a couple of years, and they audition for placement in one of our advanced groups," Hunt said. "But, there are also a lot of students who come in with very limited or no music experience, and they can begin in the sixth grade. So, it's actually open to anybody who is interested and serious about learning to play an instrument or learning to use their voice."

Mr. Hunt, who came to Lincoln Middle School eight years ago, also leads the jazz band, a dedicated ensemble, ages 11 to 14, with an insatiable appetite for learning.

"Some of them do study privately but most of them just listen to recordings, download songs on iTunes, become familiar with the literature and different styles of jazz," Hunt said. "And when we come in for our rehearsal we just put it together. We make the horn section solid and jive (mesh) with the rhythm section. So, my work, when we come here, is pretty easy because they really do have an interest, and they really do practice their individual parts at home."

Playing is a must for Christian Tomita

Playing jazz was a must for trumpeter and composer Christian Tomita. Although he's since moved on to playing basketball at Santa Monica High School and bass guitar in an area rock band called Autopilot, Christian says Lincoln's jazz band provided a solid foundation, from classical training to the fine art of band leading.

"Basically what band taught me about leading the band was actually (about) just being a leader," Tomita said. "And, composing my own music basically came from my influence of classical music. Just the notes and the complexity of the music have come from band."

Feeling economic pinch

With California reeling from its worst-ever budget crisis, secondary school arts programs are feeling the pinch. Music Director Mark Hunt says parents, teachers and students are doing what they can to help out with expenses such as band instruments.

"A lot of the instruments of the larger, more expensive instruments are provided by the school, and over years with various funding or through fundraising efforts or through donations, we've been able to purchase some of the larger instruments that are more expensive," Hunt said.

The Lincoln Middle School jazz band recently performed jazz classics at the 18th Annual Santa Monica Festival, sharing the Youth Stage with the Santa Monica College Chamber Choir and a children's theatre company.