HAMPDEN — Phil Rich punched the air, waved his hands and shuffled his feet in the Hampden Academy gym Saturday.
But Rich wasn’t competing in a March Madness basketball tournament. Instead, he was directing the Westbrook High School jazz ensemble, coaxing soaring crescendos and swinging rhythms from his charges.
Similar to March Madness, though, the hundreds of participants at the Maine State High School Instrumental Jazz Festival were not there only to please a crowd.
They were also competing against one another in the ultimate “battle of the bands” for Maine high school musicians. Students performed Friday and Saturday in many permutations of jazz groups, from small combos and ensembles to classic 1950s-style big bands.
To make it to this weekend’s festival at Hampden Academy, bands had to qualify by placing in district competitions.
The Westbrook students in the Blue Blazes band said they treated it as a friendly competition, although they were hoping to beat their rivals – the South Portland High School jazz band.
Despite downplaying the competitive aspect, they said the adrenaline from the show made them sweat through their black dress shirts. They performed pulsating renderings of “City Dock,” “Willow Weep for Me” and “Cold Duck Time.”
The performance featured an unusual deep-toned baritone sax solo by Westbrook junior Connor Bollig, a long alto sax solo by senior Gary Sanville and many other solos.
At one point, after the band blasted out a high-volume trumpet and trombone tour de force, everyone stopped playing except for the grooving bass guitar player accompanied by the drummer slowly hitting the high-hat cymbal.
After getting a standing ovation, the members of the Blue Blazes gave one another high fives, hugs and wide smiles.
“We don’t always feel it, but we were feeling it this time,” said Westbrook senior Jacob Violette, an alto sax player.
Three judges listened to the bands, taking notes and writing critiques. Bands that scored high would be invited to a night-time performance.
Rich said despite the competitive atmosphere, he emphasizes being as relaxed as possible, because tense is not a good vibe.
“They want to do well before the judges, but it’s still a performance. They should be projecting emotions and good feelings toward the audience,” Rich said.
Sanville said “no one would have paid us a dollar on the street” when the jazz ensemble first started practicing in the fall, but they’ve been getting better since.
“Every rehearsal there’s all these little flaws, and we work to correct them. You can feel it when it clicks,” Sanville said.
After the gym performance, the ensemble wasn’t done competing. From the gym, they were shuttled to a small room to “sight read,” which means perform a piece of music they had never seen before.
In the room, they had two minutes to look over the music and talk among themselves, and two minutes to listen to coaching from Rich.
“You guys are going to be fine. This is straight-ahead music. It’s not fast. You’re great sight readers,” Rich said before time ran out and he had to start the song.
The band held together for the quick unnamed song while judge Vaughn McLaughlin looked on.
Members of the group had their photos taken, and then it was time to watch other bands and wait for the scores to come in.
The Westbrook High jazz musicians said they enjoy a close camaraderie, and the music brings out everyone’s personality.
“Trumpet players are loud and obnoxious,” said Delaney Baither, a senior trumpet player.
“Trombone players are just weird,” said Kelsey Donohue, a senior trombonist.
They practice after school most days and some mornings, and sometimes have impromptu performing get-togethers at one another’s homes.
Rich said there are many good bands with dedicated students all over Maine, and it’s nice to have them all performing in the same place.
McLaughlin said it’s a fun two days of nonstop judging and a great experience for the students.
“We have more students here than all the B, C and D basketball tournaments combined, including the cheerleaders,” McLaughlin said.
Winners in different classes were to be selected Saturday night.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: