Northern California High School Bands Jazzed for New York Competition

SFJAZZ High School All-Stars Band. (Photo: Courtesy of SFJAZZ)

Three Bay Area high school bands are headed to New York this weekend for the highly competitive Charles Mingus High School Competition, named for the celebrated jazz bassist and composer.

The Berkeley High School Jazz Combo, Sacramento’s Rio Americano High School Jazz Combo, and the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars Big Band and Combo are competing against nine other groups from around the country.

Baritone sax player Glynnis McNamara of the SFJAZZ HS All Stars
Baritone sax player Glynnis McNamara of the SFJAZZ HS All Stars (Photo: Courtesy of SFJAZZ)

"Anytime you go to New York is exciting," said Erin Putnam, the ensemble manager for the SFJAZZ Big Band and Combo. "But the Mingus competition is different from some other festivals, where you get points for how perfect you are. At Mingus, you get points for how big you go."

Mingus was known for his genius as a bandleader, and for often losing his temper. He died in 1979 at the age of 56, but his widow Sue Mingus has carried on his work through a nonprofit, which sponsors the high school competition.

"I just really connect with Mingus," said Glynnis McNamara, a 17-year-old baritone saxophone player and senior at Middle College, a high school program at the College of San Mateo. "Because it captures the moment of spontaneity -- of being in the moment of something passionate."

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All the bands will play Mingus songs, and the best of the soloists will get a chance to sit in with the Mingus Big Band at a New York jazz club Sunday night.

"The music is uncompromising and not meant to be commercial in any way," said Sarah Cline, who directs the jazz program at Berkeley High School. "Charles Mingus's work is especially important today, because it is in its essence protest music. His tunes like 'Fables of Faubus,' about the ridiculousness of the racism of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in opposition to school desegregation by the Little Rock 9, teach us what it means to resist, to protest, and to speak truth through art."

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