Essentially Awesome

Memorial’s incomparable jazz band honored again

Ian Jacoby, photos by Mike O'Brien |

Director Bruce Hering conducts the Memorial High School Jazz Band during a sendoff concert April 19.

Let’s just get a couple things out of the way at the beginning of this article for safety and simplicity. Yes, Justin Vernon did play in Memorial’s jazz ensembles. Yes, he has said on record that it helped him both musically and ideologically. Yes, Bruce Herring may be one of the rare breed of high school teachers who actually get teenagers on some level. Yes, he does seem like the sort of person that it’s easy to write Mr. Holland’s Opus-esque platitudes about. Yes, Memorial has gone from upstart program to perennial jazz powerhouse in 10 stinking years. OK, are we good now?

Memorial’s jazz band is good. Really good. They’re so good that they’re going to the prestigious Essentially Ellington Competition in New York City for the sixth time. This kind of success with teenagers usually comes hand in hand with yelling, unending practices, and late nights. It is amazing, then, that Hering has managed to guide these teenagers without resorting to any of those tactics. Well, for the most part.

 “The students have taken to calling their own sectionals (band practices in the evening,)” Hering said. “They’ve really taken ownership of this band. It’s not uncommon for us to stop and listen to suggestions from one of the students.”

Did you catch that? Us. When was the last time that you had any sort of boss use that term so simply and naturally? This is the genius of what Hering has accomplished with these groups. Yes, of course they are all phenomenal musicians, but beyond that Hering has created an atmosphere that is both cohesive as a group and full of individual personalities. It’s something that Hering sees as one of the focal points of any good jazz group.

“If you look at Ellington’s bands, they were a collection of individuals, not a group. If one guy wanted to scoop a note in the middle of a phrase, he would.” Hering stops and you can almost hear the smile on the other end of the phone. “We definitely have the personalities and I just want to see them flourish.”

So far, so good. The band has flourished to the tune of another EE invite in spite of having numerous things stacked against them. They’re playing in a harder division this year, working an ever-increasing tour schedule, and dodging looming budget cuts. In the end, though, none of this matters. The band will continue to do be what it’s always been: a community, a living organism, and maybe most importantly, a bunch of kids just being themselves.

    Memorial Jazz I will play Essentially Ellington Festival May 8-10 at New York City’s Lincoln Center. The group will compete against 14 of the nation’s best high school jazz bands.