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Local jazz students head to Boston for Berklee High School Jazz Festival

  • Jessica Cowley ,16, of Westhampton practices with the Hampshire Regional honors jazz band Friday afternoon. <br/><br/>
  • Jessica Cowley ,16, of Westhampton practices with the Hampshire Regional honors jazz band Friday afternoon. <br/><br/>
  • Dara Adams-Smith leads a  practice with the Hampshire Regional honors jazz band Friday afternoon. <br/><br/>
  • Dara Adams-Smith leads a  practice with the Hampshire Regional honors jazz band Friday afternoon. <br/><br/>
  • Kai Brown,17, of Westhampton practices with the Hampshire Regional honors jazz band Friday afternoon. <br/><br/>

Two local jazz ensembles will be among the 200 bands competing at the largest high school jazz festival in the country this weekend at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Jazz bands from Hampshire Regional and Easthampton high schools and White Brook Middle School have been preparing three songs apiece since December, hoping not only for an award, but also to take in clinics and concerts and observe the talents of the other 3,000 musicians in attendance.

Dara Adams-Smith, the band director at Hampshire Regional High School, said that the “experience of preparing challenging material and getting it polished and perfect for competition” is only part of the reason she has been taking students to the festival for five years.

“Just being in that atmosphere and around all the musicians with different experiences and backgrounds, that’s a great experience for students and adults,” she said.

At the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, high schools from 13 states and Puerto Rico are competing for $175,000 in scholarships to Berklee’s Summer Performance Program. And there are clinics and concerts by award-winning musicians, including the Berklee Global Jazz Institute and the Marine Corps All-Star Jazz Band.

In 2010, Hampshire Regional’s jazz band placed third in its category, which is based on the size of the ensemble and the number of students in the high school. This year, because of a slight increase in HRHS students, the ensemble was bumped up into a bigger category.

“It’s going to be harder. We’ll compete against schools of over 1,000,” Adams-Smith said.

Her 15 students are playing a swing ballad, a minor blues and the Dave Brubeck favorite “Take Five.”

“At this point, they’re ready,” she said this week. “We’re a young group this year, we graduated 12 to 14 seniors over the last two years, so we’d be happy to finish in the top five.”

The jazz band program in Easthampton draws students from both the high school and White Brook Middle School and is run by the Easthampton Learning Foundation.

The 19 students — mostly high schoolers, with some “accelerated” middle schoolers — meet twice a week after school with director Patrick Lennon.

“They love it, they look forward to it all year,” Lennon said of the festival. “They can watch other unbelievable high school ensembles, see professionals play and see tons of different Berklee ensembles — they sound just like the recordings.”

Lennon’s band also has an award under its belt. Last year it placed third in its category. “The competition is difficult, so that was a feat,” he said.

The band has attended the festival for the past six years.

Like Adams-Smith, Lennon said Wednesday that his students are ready, but a little anxious about the competition.

“There’s always a certain level of anxiety that goes through you,” he said. “As artists, we want to be pitch perfect, but I think we can represent Easthampton well.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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