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Middle school jazz band wows crowds


Anna Willemsen just had to move, wanted to move as the Hudson Middle Jazz Band launched into a rousing rendition of The Twist before a crowd of about 200 gathered in the High Point community clubhouse.

"It's wonderful — I just love it," said Willemsen, 73, as band director John Keon snapped his fingers, "one-and-a-two-and-a-three" style, cuing the young players for the old Benny Goodman favorite, In the Mood.

"Every time they come here I get goose bumps. I have to dance," Willemsen said. "I can't help myself."

The 55-and-over crowd at High Point was a welcoming audience for this young big band.

The kids certainly look the part, impressively cool, as they play Chicago's 25 or 6 to 4, clad in the next best thing to a zoot suit: black pants and shirt, white tie and suspenders, shiny spectator shoes, all topped off with a black fedora and a pair of cool shades when they move on to Wipe Out.

Their sound seems way beyond their years.

"People are always saying they can't believe these kids are in middle school," Keon said.

Most of the audience members are familiar with the band that plays their kind of music and has been on the road, so to speak, since the mid 1990s, shortly after Keon, a talented drummer turned teacher, first got it going at Hudson Middle.

The residents are happy to pony up $4 to sit in a fold-out chair or get up to "do the twist" on a Tuesday night. And when it comes time to dole out the winnings of the 50/50 drawing, that's handed back to the band, too, sending them off with about $1,000 that will help pay for instruments, repairs and future transportation costs for an upcoming trip to Atlanta.

"We saw them last year and all I can say is that these kids are tremendous," said Willi Willms, 68, who came with his wife, Eileen, 60, and a few neighborhood friends. "When you see kids like this it makes you want to get up in the morning. You need a shot in the arm once in awhile and this sure does the trick."

The kids are happy to oblige, even if they hadn't heard some of these selections — like My Funny Valentine, Sing, Sing, Sing and Spinning Wheel — before hitting the band room at Hudson Middle.

"It's really fun," said Connor Smith, 13, who has been taking drum instruction from Keon for about seven years now. "All the great music you play and the people you meet."

And while alto sax player Julia Patellis, 12, says she typically tunes into the likes of Lady Gaga and Katie Perry, she also enjoys playing the tunes of old. "It makes you want to dance."

That's certainly the appeal of the jazz band, which is midway through a 65-stop school-year tour through the local community and beyond.

"It's getting really popular and it's hard to say 'No,' " said Keon, adding that besides the typical school-based gigs, parades and a slew of performances scheduled in residential communities and churches, the band has played Spartan Manor, Tampa International Airport, Downtown Disney, Gulf View Square mall and, most recently, in front of an audience of about 1,000 at the Pasco County teacher of the year ceremony at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge. Add to that an upcoming trip to Atlanta to fulfill Keon's promise to take his kids to an out-of-state venue every other year.

The traveling jazz band is "a win-win for everyone," said Keon. "I enjoy it. The kids get the practice and the confidence it builds, and the audience, well, they're just amazed at the kids and can't get enough of them."

Middle school jazz band wows crowds 02/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 1:49pm]
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