Battle Ground lay fairly still at 7 a.m. Wednesday. Commuter traffic has just started clogging the highway.
But inside the band room at Battle Ground High School, young musicians were already hard at work. The students of the advanced jazz band tuned up their instruments in a cacophony of horns, drums and piano.
Then band director Greg McKelvey -- a well-worn T-shirt pronouncing “SWING!” on his lanky frame -- raised his arms. When he lowered his hands, the tall man seemed to physically pull the sweet opening notes of Duke Ellington’s “All Too Soon” out of the students in front of him.
Rehearsal was under way for the big event.
If you go:
• What: Clark College Jazz Festival
• When: Bands compete 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Finals and special performances follow.
• Where: Gaiser Hall, enter through Penguin Union Building, Fort Vancouver Way
• How much: $5 per day, free to children under 12 and Clark College staff and students.
Student jazz ensembles from Clark County and beyond will be competing at the Clark College Jazz Festival Thursday through Saturday. The festival will feature about 60 high and middle school bands, some of which are considered to be among the best in the country. In honor of the festival’s 50th anniversary, an all-star big band assembled of three generations of festival alumni will perform twice during the event.
On each day of the festival, high school bands will play for judges during the day. Their scores are tallied, and the three best bands each day come back for an evening performance that serves as each division’s final round, said Richard Inouye, director of the festival and of Clark College’s bands.
Separately, judges keep their ears sharp throughout the event to pick out a winner for the Sweepstakes Trophy, which is awarded at the end of the three days. That winner often comes from the ranks of each day’s finalists, although that is not a requirement, Inouye said. The selection for that award is based on the judges’ overall impression of a group, but could also come after a particular soloist stood out, he said.
Competition for the big award and for each division’s top prize will be fierce.
Inouye has toured the country during his time as a professional jazz musician. He’s been to most major jazz festivals, and he came here from Colorado, where he worked in a region known for its strong school jazz programs. He’s impressed by Clark County’s band programs, he said.
“The programs here are some of the finest I’ve come across,” Inouye said.
Area schools know the competition is tough and bring their best game to the festival. Band director McKelvey, a former basketball player whose dad played for the Harlem Globetrotters, used a professional-sports analogy.
“When you’re the (Portland) Trail Blazers, you get up for the Los Angeles Lakers,” he said. “This festival attracts some of the best bands in the United States. I love to compete, but I hate to lose.”
His band has stepped up rehearsals lately. McKelvey is in the band room at 6 a.m. every weekday, even though rehearsals don’t start until 7 a.m. Students have come in early on their own to hone their chops. Sections of players -- the rhythm, saxophones or trumpets, for example -- have met up after school to make sure they’re in perfect sync.
And learning to be in harmony with others may just be the most important lesson to be learned. Sure, a lot of energy goes into contests such as this week’s. And winning is more fun than losing for most people, a group that clearly includes McKelvey. But the trophies aren’t what former students in the program remember years later.
Band alumni have come up to McKelvey years after graduating and told him they regularly use the skills they learned in his band to resolve conflicts in family or professional life.
“Kids learn teamwork, how to get along with each other and how to put aside differences for the common goal of playing music together,” McKelvey said.
The students also learn to trust their abilities and, in turn, themselves.
Ryan Russell, a senior who plays the tenor sax, said he plans to study computer science and will likely pursue music only as a hobby after graduation. He picked up the shiny horn in sixth grade.
Back then, he was really shy, Ryan said. Jazz improvisation -- letting notes flow out of one’s fingers without relying on sheet music -- has changed that.
“You have to be able to put yourself out there and not care if you mess up,” Ryan said. “I started soloing, and eventually I would just play even if I didn’t know what to play.”
One group of players will enter the festival with very little rehearsal. But they’ll probably be fine.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event, three generations of players formed the Clark College Golden Alumni Jazz Band, which will perform 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The group of jazz veterans is only rehearsing twice before their first concert.
“They’re all such good musicians, we’re hoping they’ll get it together anyway,” Inouye, the organizer, said with a laugh.
Jazz bands of current Clark College students also will be on stage at various times. The college’s vocal jazz ensemble will play at 5 and 8 p.m. Thursday, and the instrumental jazz ensemble will perform at 11 a.m. Thursday, noon on Friday and Saturday, and 8:30 p.m. Friday.