All That Jazz: Success of West Milford’s first Jazz Academy

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  • Photo by Justina AddiceDirector Matt Gramata prepares the students for their concert.

  • Photo by Justina AddiceThe Jazz Academy’s saxophone section is hard at work practicing the music they love.

By Justina Addice

With numerous awards from competitions and festivals, West Milford High School’s jazz band takes their love of music and turns it into a masterful expression of the craft.

This year, however, Director Matthew Gramata chose to push his students, as well as students from surrounding towns, even further by creating the Jazz Academy.

Run during the week of Aug. 6, the camp encouraged those who participated to continue developing their musical skill throughout the summer rather than using it as “time off” from their practice routine. Gramata was inspired to begin this Jazz Academy after asking himself why his students weren’t participating in other summer music programs after years of pushing them.

The answer? Typically, distance and cost.

They needed a quality music program that was not only affordable, but also a reasonable distance from the schools in Northern New Jersey.

“I tend to have the philosophy where, if there isn’t something in the area, start your own, as I did with both our high school and middle school jazz festivals,” Gramata explained.

Students from West Milford, Ringwood, Vernon, Wayne, Randolph, Montclair, and Ridgewood in grade 7 or higher participated in three, one hour sessions each day, ensembles based on their ability levels, a large ensemble session where they learned techniques and concepts related to playing in a big band, and separate instrument groups for a one hour masterclass.

The musical compositions chosen for them were challenging, but not so much that they couldn’t be mastered by the end of the week, and allowed the students to be exposed to a variety of tempos and styles.

At the end of each day, the students were provided with a one hour improvisational clinic where they learned vocabulary, chord changes, and were trained to develop as jazz improvisers.

Along with this, some of the best jazz educators and performers in the area were invited to speak to the students throughout the week.

“Our clinicians have performed with some of the biggest names in jazz including Wynton Marsallis, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, and Stan Getzto name a few, and some hold faculty positions at William Paterson University, Montclair State University, and Caldwell College,” he said.

This was a great experience that allowed Gramata to give the students the high quality jazz education they needed that would prepare them for their performance on the last day. Parents, friends, and locals came to the high school auditorium to watch their concert, as they performed the classic jazz arrangements, hand-picked to allow the group to implement what they learned throughout the week.

Not only was the concert a success, but the camp was, too. No student left that night without a pocket full of experience to help them in the future.

When asked about his hopes for next year, Gramata explained that he is excited about the direction of the program, and that he plans on extending his reach to other music programs in the area, expanding the schedule and adding more sessions.

“I am always looking to build on what we have established here with the Jazz Academy ... and look forward to seeing the musical impact it has on all of the students,” he said.

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