Vocal jazz strengthens music community


John Mendelin, Arts and Entertainment Editor

Few choral programs in Iowa include vocal jazz into their extracurricular roster to the same extent as Pleasant Valley. With the beginning of the 2018-19 jazz choir season, students will learn unique skills from singing with an small, musically-intense group.

Pleasant Valley rehearses four vocal jazz ensembles through the months of Nov.- Mar. : Jazz Nouveau, Belle Tones, Jazz Etc., and Leading Tones. The first three are accompanied by a combo while Leading Tones only performs acapella.

Vocal jazz features tight harmonies and requires a unified sound on complex, beautiful passages. It is an extracurricular undertaking of which many Iowa high schools choose to set aside in favor of other choral programs like show choir.

However, the benefits choral students receive become innumerable while learning to perform jazz. According to an article from “Jazz Times” magazine written by Darla S. Hanley, PhD, “For the student, performing jazz is a process of self-discovery that requires listening to the music, listening to a teacher, and listening to the sounds she is making on her instrument or with her voice.”

It is this discovery through vocal jazz which has helped so many Pleasant Valley vocalists find themselves musically. Christine Lyon is a senior Leading Tones member. She said, “One of the biggest lessons I’ve come across is to value all types of voices.” Lyon has also loved the ensemble sound: “Everyone has such a distinct way of singing, and we’re all given such interesting parts. It has really taught me to listen to those around you.”

Collaboration through jazz is known to form tight bonds between musicians. Hanley later wrote, “While playing music with others, communication occurs naturally through the music itself as well as with body language.”

She continued, “These non-verbal interactions strengthen the music and the relationships among the players and over time result in high-level performers who can anticipate what the others will do and respond accordingly.”

Strong relationships have always been a part of singing in Pleasant Valley jazz choirs, according to Lyon. “Jazz taught me that friendship should bypass age and grade because its is able to feature such a wide variety of people who all enjoy singing together.”

While the vocal jazz community at Pleasant Valley continues to thrive, high schools across Iowa are growing their programs as well. The Iowa Vocal Jazz Association’s website reported thirty-two districts were represented at the Mar. 2018 championships, and numbers do not look to be slowing down for 2019.