National Jazz Festival Debuts in Philadelphia

By Hyun Lee, English Honor Society President

On Saturday, February 15, 2020, the National Jazz Festival (NJF) made its official debut in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Under the leadership of Joe Bongiovi, who is the director of the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, the band director at Princeton High School in New Jersey, and the President of the New Jersey Association Of Jazz Educators (NJAJE), NJF aims to become the major national jazz festival in the country. This would fill the vacancy left by the Berklee High School Jazz Festival (HSJF), which, up until this year, was the largest high school jazz festival in America. Unfortunately, as of January 26, 2019, HSJF has been suspended. Its host, the Berklee College of Music, will redirect funds from the festival to an initiative that will financially support the education of Berklee undergraduate students.

The Berklee High School Jazz Festival, originally called the New England High School Stage Band Festival, was founded in the spring of 1969 by former Berklee president Lee Eliot Berk. This initial festival was attended by 21 bands from the New England region. Since then, HSJF had experienced tremendous growth over its half-century history. Last year marked the 51th annual High School Jazz Festival. Approximately 208 ensembles, 53 adjudicators, several clinicians, and over 3,000 student musicians participated in that festival, which was held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts. All events were free and open to the public, and participating ensembles divided into competing categories determined by school size performed throughout the day. The day’s events included performances by Berklee faculty, tours of Berklee’s campus, open jam sessions, etc. With the absence of HSJF, the National Jazz Festival has large shoes to fill.

The Xavier Jazz Band was one of the 43 schools that attended the National Jazz Festival this year. NJF largely adopted the same structure of Berklee, and members of the Xavier Jazz Band who went to both NJF this year and HSJF in the past commented on the similarities of the two festivals. As the major jazz festival that the Xavier Jazz Band attends during the school year, NJF presents opportunities for young musicians to not only engage in some friendly competition, but also immerse themselves in a day of jazz and gain inspiration for their own playing by attending clinics, listening to other jazz bands’ performances, and receiving constructive criticism from judges who review the performances. Although NJF did not have as many participating schools as HSJF, many Xavier musicians commented on its successful debut. According to Soti Paul ’24, NJF was “an immersive experience with many fun clinics and shows that were set up.” Joseph Marcin ’20 said that it also helped to “further expand [his] own musical knowledge of jazz.”

Xavier faced some stiff competition this year, and placed seventh out of nine schools in the large ensemble L-2 division. In previous years, the Xavier Jazz Band had gone to HSJF, which was a larger festival. As a new festival, NJF had less participating schools; thus, it merged some of the divisions that were present in Berklee, causing Xavier to get mixed in with schools that would normally be in a higher division. With that in consideration, Xavier did relatively well, especially since Xavier scored a mere three points less than the fifth place band. Xavier has had a good record in Berklee festivals in the past, having placed second in 2013 and third in 2015. Given that the jazz band has a majority of strong, undergraduate players, the band has a lot of potential to score higher in upcoming years.