As any jazz musician knows, "improvisation" can be the key to success.
That was on display in abundance at Saturday's 31st annual Frank Mantooth Jazz Festival at New Trier High School, with almost one-third of the bands canceling due to a snow storm.
"We needed to do something," said Nic Meyer, director of Jazz ensembles and fest host. A total 45 bands, including high school, university and professional players, were scheduled to perform, but there were 12 cancellations, including the University of Illinois Jazz Ensemble.
"When you have jazz musicians in the room, you can figure something out, whether it's having to figure out music or figure out other stuff," Meyer said. "What we do is improvise. We just got a couple of the right people together on the right instruments."
Meyer said other musicians were glad to jump into the open slots because it gave them a chance to do what they love — play jazz.
"We just kind of looked around," said Meyer. "One of the drummers was a student teacher there with one of the visiting bands. No rehearsal. No planning. We just walked on stage and called some tunes. My arm was twisted, and I went and got my saxophone. I wasn't planning on that. That's just part of what jazz musicians do."
The festival also included workshop type "clinician" sessions where many of the 600 wide-eyed students from various area high schools were given a chance to learn from the pros, including jazz stand up bassist great, Christian McBride and his Big Band.
NTHS senior Lily Furniss, 18, from Wilmette, plays alto sax and clarinet and said she jumped at the chance to hear the pros talk about their passion for playing.
"All the sax players from all the high schools represented were there," said Furniss, who also worked as a volunteer on the festival's CD and merchandise sales table. "They were pretty excited to hear what a professional has to say."
Furniss also played in a band performing jazz standards including "Summertime," "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," "Ding Dong Ding" and "I Can't Stop Loving You."
"It's sort of surreal because this is my first time opening for a band of this level," she said before she went on. "It's exciting, but I'm completely nervous, which is normal. It wouldn't be normal if I wasn't nervous. It'll be fun. It'll be a good experience. It'll definitely be worthwhile and memorable."
The festival started in 1983 and is usually held on the first Saturday of February. In past years, as many as 50 high school and junior high jazz groups from the Midwest and Canada have performed. The day also is filled with seminars on improvisation, transcription, the music business and instrument master classes.
Niles West High School junior Alex Rivera said he has been playing trumpet since fourth grade and that he and other jazz players from the school were glad they braved the storm to get to the festival because they learned a lot from the pros. Rivera said alternative rock is his favorite type of music, but he also offered some thoughts on what it takes to become a good jazz musician.
"There's certain things you've got to know about working together as a group, and practicing alone obviously, to get some technique going on," he said. "You've got to get some rhythm going on with a group and make sure you're really communicating with each other and make sure you make some good sounds out there. But 'jazzing,' there's really not a good definition of how to do that."
Despite bad weather, the festival headliner, The Christian McBride Big Band, arrived from New York in the storm and was the festival's closing act.
"We're blessed that they got here and got here safely," Meyer said. "Christian's an absolute icon."
"One of my drummers, one of my pianists, got to play with Christian McBride and then they cycled out a couple of my other kids who got to play," he said. "All of these kids got to watch it go down, and Christian's making comments about what he listens for. It's an incredibly rare experience and rare opportunity. The kind of opportunity you'd typically only get at a major university like, Juilliard, or something."
Max Pokrzywnicki, 15, was with a handful of students from Downers Grove North High School. He has been playing clarinet since the fourth grade and said snowy weather isn't a big deal.
"Snow means money for me because I do snow shoveling," he said.