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Friday, Sept. 15, 2006


Big-band education

Every student's a winner at Yamano

On the sidewalk, in the parking lot and on the entrance stairs outside Fuchu Mori Art Theater Hall in western Tokyo last month, throngs of university students were fingering melody lines in the air, scrunching their faces trying to remember chord changes and counting out tempos in whispered voices.

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Meiji University New Wave Orchestra face a grilling from judges at the Yamano Big Band Contest. MICHAEL PRONKO PHOTOS

Inside, the halls of the theater rumbled like a college cafeteria after final exams. Students checked their cell phones, chattered nervously and chomped down rice balls, wondering if their band would make it to the top.

The 2,000-seat auditorium was standing-room only. On stage, a 16-piece big band punched out a rousing Gil Evans tune. As the last note faded, the crowd burst into applause and shouts, clapping until the band, with their instruments gleaming in the spotlights, finished their 45-degree group bow.

The students and audience were all there for the Yamano Big Band Contest, which is to college jazz what the Koshien tournament is to high-school baseball. Every year, while classmates work part-time jobs, travel or attend employment seminars, nearly 1,000 student musicians -- 58 bands of 15 to 20 members each -- spend their summers practicing the works of big-band era bandleaders such as Count Basie and Woody Herman, as well as the more modern sounds of composer Jaco Pastorius. Many have striven for years before getting the chance to compete for the title of "Best Band in Japan." For many, it is their first time on stage.

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The Latin Grooves of Nihon University's Rhythm Society Orchestra (above) earned them 13th place; Tenri University ALS Jazz Orchestra celebrate winning the Ninth Place Judges Prize.
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Now in its 37th year, the YBBC is, like the Koshien, an event packed with success and heartbreak. It allows each band only three songs to show their stuff. That's not much time considering professional bands often take that long to get warmed up. During the weekend competition, one band after another from universities all over Japan perform their well-practiced numbers before a lively crowd.

Their names -- many borrowed from famed groups of the past, such as the New Herd and Newport Orchestras -- suggest a firm love of big-band jazz. The retro-cool, all-Ellington band from Kyoto University, the lyrical 1930s swing of Chuo University, the hard bop of International Christian University and the funky punch of Kansai Gakuin, confirmed it, as well as the clued-in attitude of students.

The number of women in each band was a welcome surprise, perhaps spurred by Shinobu Yaguchi's 2004 film "Swing Girls," about a down-and-out high school that comes to life after forming a swing band. As Junko Moriya, a contest judge who participated in YBBC as a student and now leads her own big band noted, "About 20 years ago, when I was a participant in the Yamano Contest myself, fewer than 10 percent were women, and most of them were pianists. Now, they play horns, drums, guitars and bass." With most of the bands' soloists now also women, Japan's many professional big bands look set to realign the gender balance in the near future.

Each band received extensive feedback from the critics, teachers and professional musicians who formed the panel of judges. Cringing to hear about themselves in front of the 2,000-plus members of the audience, especially when critical comments drew barely stifled laughter, the students were learning the hard way, with instant, direct and very public assessments.

Perhaps each band's own support network -- in one case this even included a huge senbatzuru (1,000 origami paper cranes) -- gave them the strength to hear the judges' forthright opinions. The judges would point out when they played too loud, too fast or too high, or when a solo had too much energy and not enough direction. Moriya said, "As a judge, I try to listen to their love and dedication to music. You can feel those from their sound. We are not impressed by their instrumental skill only." Of course, the most important piece of advice was repeated to nearly everyone: practice, practice, practice.

Compliments were handed out too, although only a few of the bands received the highest one of all -- "it was really jazz."

Small things stood out. The super-humble bow after a gutsy solo, or the embarrassed smile after flubbing a first line. The insertion of a cartoon rhythm in a drum solo that surprised the rest of the band -- and one student holding her hand up to drag out the final note until everyone ran completely out of breath -- all made the contest feel very different from any other competition. They were taking pleasure in the musical moment.

At last, though, it was time for the winners. The judges walked on stage to a drum roll. As the announcer called out the first winning band's name, one section of the auditorium exploded. A whooping group hug turned into a race for the stage. As each of the 15 awards was handed out, disappointment, pride and experience all found their places and a few more tears started to fall.

Though few of these musicians may end up playing jazz professionally, they will certainly remember the weekend. As Moriya pointed out, "Yes, Yamano is a contest, but it's also a big concert." By the end, each band knew where they stood, though with something as subjective as music, they must also have known that, winner or not, they had accomplished something special.

Winners from the Yamano Big Band Contest can be heard on Inter FM, 76.1 on Sept. 17, 1-5 p.m.
Michael Pronko can be reached at: jazznicity@yahoo.com

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