A tall, gangly young man, wearing a rather baggy dark suit and running shoes maneuvers through a forest of music stands at George Stevens Academy, where Maine’s District VI Jazz Festival was being held last week.
Despite the suit, Jamie Calandro resembled a marathon runner pacing before a race start, exuding tension and anticipation. In truth, Ellsworth High School’s music director was checking out the performance space in the school’s library where his big jazz band would be performing in a few minutes. After lugging in a bunch of folding chairs and rearranging them a few times, he nodded to his students who were waiting in the wings. They drifted in with instruments and music scores in hand and took their seats.
It’s an impressively large band for a relatively small school — about 25 or so — and as Calandro warmed them up, they also revealed an impressive depth of sound.
As soon as they began their set, starting off with the lively “Blues for Basie,” the tension eased from Calandro’s physical presence and he appeared almost languid as he moves back and forth in front of his band, casually keeping the beat with subtle finger snaps and head nods until, suddenly, he double-punched the air with both fists, about a half dozen times. This direction was perfectly matched by bursts of staccato notes and percussion from his band. Very cool.
As was the rest of the program, which featured, in addition to some very challenging jazz scores, some notable solo work from his saxes, piano, flute, drums, guitars and brasses.
Anyone who has ever suffered through a school band concert punctuated by shrieking reeds, sour notes, muddy rhythms and kids with faces buried in their music scores should know this was not that. This was mellow, tuneful waves of challenging music played by kids who are not only accomplished players of their instruments, but who get what jazz is all about and are having a blast.
When the set was over, one of the judges, Shane Ellis, offered an instant critique of their performance. In addition to some effusive compliments, about the “tightness” of their sound, the raised bells of the brasses, (meaning their faces weren’t buried in the music) and some excellent solo riffs, Ellis offered some very specific constructive criticism, about exploring different rhythmic combination in certain passages, suggesting they Google some alternative two-five-five progressions, which made no sense to this audience member, but which the kids seemed to understand and appreciate.
Afterward, when I asked several band members if they did indeed understand what the judge was talking about, they nodded vigorously, saying that in addition to teaching them various jazz tunes, Calandro also manages to sneak in a little music theory.
Calandro said he appreciates the immediate feedback offered by accomplished, professional musicians such as Ellis.
“At my old school in Long Island N.Y., the judging was all very cold and distant, and the judges themselves weren’t selected on the basis of their musicianship, but some kind of status thing.”
In fact, he says, since he first began his job at Ellsworth High School, three years ago, after 14 years at his previous job, he is consistently pleased by how seriously Maine, the school, the community and his students regard music education.
Actually, he looks a bit too young to have begun his teaching career 17 years ago, and he explains that he started right after graduating from Marist College in New York. He founded the music program at a parochial school in Long Island, and before he left, his was one of six schools in New York to be invited to perform at Carnegie Hall for two straight seasons.
“I didn’t plan to become a music teacher,” he confessed. “I was thinking more in the lines of broadcasting and communications. But I have always been a band geek and eventually it dawned on me that music was it for me.”
He says he also had good teachers in high school, who made learning music both a serious endeavor and fun part of the school curriculum. It’s something he hopes he can pass on to his students.
Apparently, he is succeeding.
“He’s both super and relaxed and super supportive says flutist Kaitlin McCullough, who along with a couple of other students has followed us into the cafeteria. “He has made band a safe space for us, a sanctuary really.
“When I become a music educator, which is my plan,” Kaitlin adds, “I hope do the same for my students.”
Kaitlin, along with a number of other students, had dropped out of band after her freshman year when they found the program overly stringent and unrewarding. But she says when she heard they were hiring a new director she decided to give it another go.
“And then Mr. Calandro walked in! From that first day, I knew I had made the right choice.”
Two other students, guitar player and drummer Alec Leathers and trombonist Eden Salzig nodded in agreement.
Alec says he also plans to pursue a career in music education.
“I’ve thought about being a teacher for a long time, but wasn’t sure where I wanted to focus,” he says. “But working with Mr. Calandro has convinced me you can have a good career doing what you are passionate about.
“I don’t know if my future will be teaching music” says Eden, “but I do want it to be part of my life. It’s fun and I’ve met some great people, and I think having music in my life will bring balance to whatever career I do choose.”
All three agreed that balance is exactly what Calandro brings to his classroom.
“I’ve had teachers who were too serious and make it a chore or are too friendly and don’t get any teaching done,” says Alec. “Mr. Calandro manages to both teach and give us the support that makes learning part unstressful and fun.”
Throughout all these accolades from his students Calandro’s head is deeply bowed into a triangle he has made of his long arms, but he is obviously touched by their affirmation of the work he is doing.
“It’s incredibly fulfilling to hear my students are getting so much out of the program that they would want to follow in such a rewarding profession,” He says. “Knowing them as I do, I’m sure they’ll be amazing.
Three years ago, he says, he and his wife Dympna who was expecting their second child at the time, were in a very different place. They had been devastated when the diocese at his old school cut funding to his successful music program leaving him without a job and an uncertain future.
As it happens Calandro’s sister-in-law, who lives in Ellsworth, had heard that EHS was looking for a new music director and, well, the rest is history.
“Ellsworth has been such a welcoming community, for me and my family” he says. “While I have missed some of my students from the old school, I don’t think of New York as home anymore.”
It has been a long day and he and his band started to get ready for the bus that would take them back to Ellsworth. Before they left, they learned that they have had received yet another top rating from the judges — their third one of the day — which meant his big band and his two combos will all be going on to the finals, which will be held in South Portland, March 15 and 16.