Lake Norman & Mooresville

Jazz tickles young fancies at Cannon

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a jazz fan, raised in a family of big band/jazz musicians. Mom was a singer; Dad played piano. That's how they met.

In our Long Island, N.Y., home, you were just as likely to hear recordings by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman or Stan Kenton as Elvis or the Beatles.

So when Cannon School band director Brad Davis told me about the resurgence in jazz among his students, my ears perked up. Davis, in his sixth year at Cannon, says the jazz program has grown each year. I asked if I could visit one of his classes; he agreed.

The period began at 10:20 a.m. This particular class is a jazz combo of 14 young musicians: 13 guys and one girl. By 10:21, the kids had filed in, and a minute later, they had their instruments out and were ready play.

By 10:24, Davis punched up a recording of "What'd I Say." The combo is working on an instrumental version of this Ray Charles rock/jazz classic from the 1950s.

John Dockery, of Charlotte, was at the Hammond organ, setting the cadence for the selection. "I enjoy music in general and jazz in particular," the 15-year-old said. His parents are both musicians.

The songs the combo plays are selected by Davis and his students and cover a wide array of years and styles. The common thread among all of them: jazz.

And how does it feel to be the only girl in a 14-piece jazz combo? "It's fine. I have no problem with it," said alto saxophonist Alex Enrique, 15, of Mooresville.

For his part, Davis says the jazz groups are "kinda guy-heavy," and he would enjoy attracting some more girls into the program.

Nevertheless, Davis and the school are proud of their progress. "Last year, we actually had three full-time jazz classes, which is rather unprecedented at the high-school level. Our most advanced group did a total of 17 public performances."

Cannon's program is more combo-oriented (rather than traditional big band). This places more emphasis on the individual and the importance of improvisation.

"Focusing on improvisation and the voice of the individual play right into the overall educational philosophy of this school," he added.

Davis, who is 41 and lives in Concord, had no idea jazz would become such a major part of his work at Cannon. Armed with a master's degree in jazz from the State University of New York, he started out as their fifth-grade band director. From there, his job mushroomed into teaching upper-school-grade bands, then big bands and now advanced jazz combos.

He's seen many of his students go on to bigger and better things. He mentions Cameron Cook as a prime example.

Cook, a tenor saxophonist who graduated last spring, was a star in swimming, cross country and track; acted in plays for the theater department; and was also a real force on the academic front. He is now at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in music, with a jazz focus.

From every indication, Cannon's young jazz musicians are admired by their peers as well as their parents.

While a top priority at the moment is to select songs and prepare for their first concert in November, Davis constantly reminds the young musicians what jazz is all about.

As they rehearsed "Caravan," made famous by Duke Ellington, he stopped them for a moment.

"Remember, this is jazz. There are no strict rules that you have to follow every time you play a piece of music. If you guys are feeling something, go with it."