In recent years, New Jersey has established itself as a hotbed of high school vocal jazz talent. In 2018, the top three schools to compete in the annual Berklee High School Jazz Festival national competition were all based in New Jersey.
On Friday, April 26, Burlington Township High School’s Jazz Nouveau vocal group competed against these top-performing schools at the New Jersey State Vocal Jazz Finals in Princeton, and ended up on top of a very talented heap, taking home first place.
Director Steven Bishop established the vocal jazz group when he started teaching at the high school 10 years ago.
“We actually started as jazz gospel the first year, we did some gospel and some jazz, and the kids gravitated toward jazz so I figured, let’s ride that horse, so we did,” said Bishop.
The vocal jazz program eventually broke off into two groups: the Singers and Nouveau.
“Jazz Nouveau is more the competition group, so we do more complex songs,” said senior Joseph Ruiz, who sings bass for the Nouveau group. “Over the years, the two groups have both grown tremendously, both groups have been doing more and more complicated songs.”
“It’s really one huge jazz family now, where some of the most fun we have is when we all sing together. With 26 singers at once, it’s very powerful,” said senior Noah Manno, who sings baritone and provides vocal percussion for the Nouveau group.
According to Bishop, both groups have shown extraordinary dedication to their craft and it showed at the state finals competition.
“It’s been fantastic. I can’t believe how much they have just bought into the idea of vocal jazz because it’s not exactly the most common form of vocal music,” said Bishop.
Now facing the end of his final year with the group, Manno is going out with a bang. He received the Outstanding Soloist Award at the competition for his solo in the song “La Fiesta.”
“I was very humbled because there were so many other great soloists that were performing at the event, so when I got that award I was blown away. I was honored to be in the same category as so many talented musicians,” said Manno.
What set Burlington Township High School’s Nouveau singers apart from their competitors, according to Ruiz and Manno, was how student-run their performances was.
“Over the years we’ve started to conduct ourselves, so we don’t need a conductor on stage with us. Instead, we interact more with each other and follow each other’s lead. That not only builds a kind of togetherness with the group, it builds character for the group singing,” said Ruiz.
“Not every group does that, it sort of sets us apart from other groups,” said Manno.
Seniors Sydney Morrison-Hoffman and Kamryn Carrigg were also recognized at the state competition, together winning an award for Outstanding Soprano Section.
In past years, the jazz vocal group competed at the national competition at Berklee before the state competition, giving it an idea of what it would be up against. This year, despite winning first place twice in a row at Berklee in 2017 and 2018, the group only competed at the state level.
According to Morrison-Hoffman and Carrigg, this made for a unique and challenging competition at the state finals.
“States was a huge surprise, we were hearing the other schools for the first time, and it was the first time that we had actually put together our full final set and performed it in front of people, so that in itself added more excitement to it,” said Morrison-Hoffman.
For Carrigg, being recognized as part of a standout soprano section was a huge payoff for a year of hard work.
“It’s been a long journey and it made my year getting that,” said Carrigg.