Over the past two months, the Toll Gate High School Jazz Ensemble has competed in two festivals and brought home three awards.
First, the ensemble performed in the Rhode Island Music Educators Association Jazz Festival, which was held on Feb. 2 at University of Rhode Island, and was awarded a “superior” ranking. The ranking is the highest a band can achieve; at last year’s festival, the ensemble went home with an “excellent” ranking.
Then, on March 2, the group competed at the Berklee Jazz Festival in Boston, where they placed 11th and were only 13 points away from the fourth place “Honorable Mention” in their division, which consisted of 16 bands. The festival featured jazz bands from across the country, and Toll Gate’s division included bands from Rhode Island, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“It’s the premier high school competition,” said Nina Yu, a senior flute and saxophone player in the ensemble.
The group was so proud to have two members win individual awards at the Berklee competition. Evan Carley, a junior bassist, won the distinguished musician award for the Toll Gate Ensemble.
Also, junior Isaac Davis was named the Most Superior Musician in the division for his performance on drums.
“It was a big deal,” said Yu, explaining that it is the highest honor a musician can achieve at the event.
Yu and the other seniors are amazed at how far their ensemble has come in their four years at Toll Gate. They remember, during their freshmen and sophomore years, struggling to keep it together.
“There were eight performers on the best day,” said Justin Salisbury, looking back on the ensemble during his freshmen year. With a less than dedicated group and a long-term sub who could not take the group to competitions, it was more of a club who got together to listen to music as opposed to performing.
“We’ve had a long road; we used to cancel practice because not enough players showed up,” explained Dena Goldblatt, a senior saxophone player.
All of that changed last year when George Landrie, a former music education teacher from Gorton and Aldrich junior high schools, became the permanent teacher at Toll Gate.
“Mr. Landrie is the most dedicated teacher I know,” said Yu. Landrie will give up time with his own family to work with his ensemble, often staying at the school until after night practices and meeting with the group weekly during the summer.
“If we had any other teacher, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Yu.
The ever-supportive teacher, Landrie says it is all about the right group of musicians.
“The credit goes to these students for their work ethic and attitude,” said Landrie.
Landrie also knows nothing could have been possible without the support of Toll Gate principal Stephen Chrabaszcz. The senior players agree, saying any time they want to go on a field trip to compete or perform, Chrabaszcz finds a way to get them there.
“He is always supporting us,” said Salisbury, who plays trumpet for the ensemble along with many other instruments.
Landrie also gives credit to music-lover Eugene Nadeau of the School Committee.
“He and the other Warwick School Committee members have supported this program and we got to perform at the WSC last Tuesday,” said Landrie.
Landrie knows the support of officials has contributed to the ensemble’s success, but also knows he has an immensely talented group of young musicians.
“As the 1970s Boston Bruins coaching legend, Don Cherry, once said after his first year with the Bruins, ‘I just open the door for Bobby Orr’; well, I just open the band room up for this rhythm section,” said Landrie.
As the seniors prepare to head off to college, with Goldblatt receiving her first acceptance letter during last week’s practice, Landrie is already planning for next year.
Utilizing the talents of Davis and Carley, Landrie plans to form a smaller jazz combo that will also feature Szabi Kiss on piano and David Stachurski on alto saxophone. The combo will compete separately at various competitions, in addition to remaining part of the large ensemble.
For now, however, the group is enjoying their time as what Goldblatt calls “one dysfunctional family.” The group is preparing for the Share The Music concert on April 2, where they will perform along with the Toll Gate vocal and West Warwick High School instrumental programs. They will also perform at Toll Gate’s spring concert on May 9. Both concerts will take place at Toll Gate High School.