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West ensemble one of nine schools in jazz finals

State contest will be director’s last before retirement

Cherry Hill West has been named one of nine schools out of 45 to have its jazz ensemble qualify and compete in the state jazz finals next month at Princeton High School.

The ensemble earned that designation for the second consecutive year following COVID after competing in the New Jersey Association for Jazz Education’s State Jazz Preliminaries on Thursday, March 9. 

This year, the ensemble was also recognized for its trombone section – made up of Ben Hess, Chase Johnson, Wil Maurone, and Justin Lansing – and earned a trophy for most outstanding trombone section during the preliminaries. 

While some in West’s jazz ensemble were surprised to move on to the next level, its director, Jim Marks, attributed that to hard work, given the many talented seniors who graduated last year.

During the state finals, the ensemble will be tested in sight reading, where students will get five minutes to read the music before playing it together as an ensemble, and improvisation, which has students spontaneously create music without following something written.

“Improv is – the loosest term as far as a description – spontaneous creation,” Marks noted. “I always tell them, you got to play from your head, play from your heart.”

The ensemble is a class that meets daily, with regular practice in improv through different styles of Jazz.

“What’s great about our class is that every day, somebody’s experimenting with new ideas and that’s the most fun part of the ensemble,” Marks said. “ … When they’re improvising in the beginning of class, I don’t care if they make a lot of mistakes, because they’re experimenting and learning. 

“It’s just like being in math class; you’re going to do a problem wrong every once in a while, and then you’re going to fix it, and then you’re going to get it right.”

“It’s always been fun,” added senior ensemble member and keyboardist Mason Dempsey. “Every day that I come in, it’s always something new, something fun, and I always get to try new things.”

While there is no one way to do improv, Marks explained that there are some limitations, like having to follow the chord progression, play in time and add elements that make sense.

“It can be different every day, but the idea is to keep the style the same,” he said.

In his 23 years at West, Marks has turned the after-school jazz program into a class where students can practice daily, a move that made a big difference. Prior to the pandemic – when there were no finals for 2020 or 2021 – the ensemble participated in four of the six years of state finals leading up to that, and placed third last year. 

Marks has always been passionate for jazz, and that passion is something he tries to impart to his students.

“In jazz especially, every part is important,” Marks pointed out. “There’s no any  one part that’s more important than another … Everybody has to be fully engaged in the performance; they need to understand they’re just as important as the person sitting in the front chair.

“If one person’s not doing 100 percent of what they need to be doing, it affects the overall performance of the ensemble,” he added. “Everybody’s important.”

“We’re a family here,” agreed Andrew Weiser, a senior who plays electric bass. “It feels so much more comforting when everyone loves each other and we just play well together.”

This year will be Mark’s final year leading the students; he will retire in June.

In addition to the state finals – which happen on Saturday, April 29 – the community will be able to hear the West jazz ensemble perform at the Thursday, April 13 Jazz Band Concert at West at 7 p.m. as well as the Pops Concert on Wednesday, May 31.

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