One of the more magical surprises at the 2013 Review Music Awards was when a group of young musicians known as the Saginaw Area Youth Jazz Ensemble (SAYJE) beat out such seasoned veterans as Brush Street with Brass & Strings and The Baytones to receive the honor of being selected Best Big Jazz Band. Ranging in age from 13 to 18 and consisting of between 15-25 members, SAYJE both represents and symbolizes the future and vitality of the creative arts in the Great Lakes Bay area.
According to Assistant Director Leslie Campbell, SAYJE started back in 2010 with the Summer Music Festival. “A lot of schools don't have jazz band programs and many schools don't feature much music at all. At that point in time a lot of school band programs with long term substitutes and temporary band directors were around because there were not a lot of jazz programs going on in the schools. We decided to start a program for these talented young musicians here in Saginaw and in March 2011 actually had enough kids assembled. We now have three remaining members from the very beginning and our first gig was at the Lansing Jazz Festival in August, 2011.”
Starting out with a half dozen young musicians, the group now stays consistently between 15-25 students, conducting open auditions every September to fill the spots of kids as they graduate or reach the age of 18, although students can stay longer with the program if they request.
Two veterans of SAYJE that have stayed with the group since its inception are Danielle Mason and James Stewart, who both play saxophone. According to Danielle, she started out her musical career by playing percussion. “But then I stole my Step-dad's saxophone and taught myself how to play it,” she explains. “I only knew the basics but got involved with SAYJE and kept advancing. My interest in music started with me dancing to Jazz and getting into it; and then I started with the saxophone because for me sax is the face of Jazz music.”
As for James, his involvement began with his mother recommending that he go try out for the group. “I didn't want to at first because I didn't know about Jazz and felt that I was behind the other players,” he explains. “But after sticking with it for three years now it was after only one year with SAYJE that I started progressing a lot more than I was with the school band.”
The group gets together on Tuesday nights for practice and on other days both Danielle and James practice as much as they can; at least a half hour each day. “We're all a bug huge family and have fun doing it,” relates Danielle. “We all share the same passion and I look forward to coming to practices on Tuesday because we're all young and it's a lot of fun.” James concurs: “I love the whole feel of it - playing with my peers and the passion we share. We all enjoy doing things we all love.”
In terms of influences, Danielle cites her two favorite artists as Stevie Wonder and John Coltrane. “I also have Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra posters on my bedroom wall, right next to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller,” she smiles.
And while James says that he has a lot Weezer posters on his bedroom walls, he also relates how the first year with SAYJE he saw a Kenny G concert and actually stayed after and talked with the legendary artist for 90 minutes. “It was only my third year playing sax and we talked about different saxes. He tried to teach me how to circulatory breathe, which was pretty amazing.”
In addition to the honor received at this year's Review Music Awards, each year SAYJE is logging more performances. This June they will perform at the Michigan Jazz Trail on June 19th; Herter Band Camp in West Branch on June 20th; and this year they were invited to the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival on June 22nd. They are also slated to perform at Relay for Life on July 20th and the Lansing Jazz Festival during the first week of August.
Additionally, international composer Chris Berg will be working with the group on May 20th doing a clinic with the SAYJE kids. “He's worked with lots of college bands and composed music for high school and middle schools,” explains Leslie. “Every high school band out there has probably played his arrangements.”
When asked about their reaction to winning the Best Big Jazz Band award, Danielle notes how she was surprised they were even nominated. “My Mom said 'Look at what you were nominated for' and my heart was racing when we were sitting at the table at the ceremony. I was thinking there is no possible way that we won this, given the other bands we were up against; and then when I heard that we won it was a huge shock. My heart went 'Wow'” I mean, we were up against Mike Brush!”
Both Danielle and James say the biggest challenge for them is balancing their school work and sports with their musical endeavors involving SAYJE. “The hard thing is pushing other things out of the way and saying, 'Hey, I have a performance today',” notes Danielle.
The group rehearses at Carrollton High School right now and before that would rehearse in the Garage of Terror, only they don't fit in there anymore. According to Leslie they are looking for new rehearsal space and performance venues. “The venue issue is a big thing because lots of places want to charge us to use their space for concerts and because we're a non-profit we don't have the money to pay $300.00 to rent a hall for a concert,” explains Leslie. “The money we do have is for the kids.”
Due to their perseverance and talent, SAYJE has also developed a loyal following, with people driving to Lansing to catch their performances. And in the upcoming year the group hopes to get bigger and get their name out before the public more. “We're more well known in Lansing and Bay City than we are in Saginaw right now,” reflects Leslie, “and eventually would like to have a feeder band of less experienced kids that can feed into the more experienced incarnation. But we're also in the middle of getting our 501c3, so a lot is happening right now.”
Another unique component of SAYJE is that unlike many groups, they have few problems with losing members. “Nobody drops out of this group,” notes James. “In the beginning there were older kids that aged-out; but everybody wants to stay with us as long as they can.