Ward Brannman’s band has an hour of tunes prepared, everything from Latin and rock tunes to swing standards, and they’re booked. There was a gig on the 14th, Friends of Youth luncheon on March 15, a big festival at the end of the month, a private event in mid-April, and they play EMP in Seattle on April 25.
It’s quite the schedule, something many local bands would envy — and they’re middle school kids.
Meet the Kamiakin Middle School Jazz Band, the pride of Kingsgate and the hottest group of pint-sized musicians around.
The band meets first thing in the morning, well before most Kamiakin students get out of bed, and are “wide awake and playing really good jazz,” under Brannman’s direction.
The kids have a “fat” folder, with some tunes held over from year to year and new charts here and there. The older players help bring younger members along with the familiar pieces, but all the kids have to demonstrate a grasp of sight reading during the audition process.
“It’s a unique thing,” Brannman said. “We have an hour’s worth of music ready to go at any time, and that’s really rare. Most groups prepare a few tunes and play them all year until they’re super good. We have an hour’s worth of entertaining music for vocals, trombone, trumpet… it’s an entertaining band.”
The older members help Brannman audition prospects, giving feedback after a few days playing familiar tunes as a group. Many of the incoming sixth graders have band experience from elementary school, and many Kamiakin students engage in private lessons. Brannman said the group’s busy schedule — there are 10 field trips remaining in the year — help attract interested players, and plenty of newcomers already know how to play.
“It’s not just kids opening cases and learning how to squawk,” Brannman said. “Once they hit Kamiakin, kids are anxious to be in jazz.”
But jamming in a classroom eventually loses its effectiveness for young players, and like any old-time jazz musician will say, it’s time to get out and gig.
“The premise behind gigs, and it’s a quote we live by in Kamiakin Jazz, Wynton Marsalis says it’s not learned or taught, it’s absorbed,” Brannman said.
By getting out and doing jazz, the players can soak in the experience and grow into better musicians. Brannman said he has a framed sponge on his wall, a gift from a cheeky student with a sense of humor.
Brannman said the program wouldn’t be possible without the help of parents, who support financially and as chaperones and fundraisers. Some of his students — Brannman has been at Kamiakin since 1986 — are second-generation players, and he often hears “my mom had you in band” from his charges.
Support from the teaching staff has also been big, Brannman said, as the band’s packed schedule can put a strain on core classes.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Brannman, who recently turned 55. “I love this school, and the community has been so supportive of what we do. … It’s the best gig in the world.”
The band recently put on the first paid concert Brannman’s history at the school, charging $2 to help pay professional dancers from the Alchemy Tap Project on March 14. Kamiakin’s spring band concert is set for 7:30 p.m. on June 6.