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Keeping the Music Alive

by Jennifer L. Nelson

With school programs shuttered, one local group steps up to the mic.

Local schools may be suffering budget cuts—and taking it out on their music programs—but one Medford group has made it their mission to ensure that the youngest up-and-coming South Jersey musicians still have plenty of opportunities to play.

Thanks to M-Town Jazz Jam and its non-profit arm, South Jersey Music Education Partnership, Inc., young aspiring jazz musicians are taking the stage all across the region … and learning more about the art of music performance than they ever could in a classroom.

Founded in the fall of 2011, M-Town Jazz Jam was launched in response to the elementary music education program being eliminated in the Medford school district. A group of parents immediately banded together as “Keep the Beat” to raise the necessary funds to restore music lessons in their children’s schools, but ultimately, their more than $40,000 in donations wasn’t enough to rehire a teacher and save the program.

Fatefully, Shawnee High School’s band director Nick Rotindo organized a summer community jazz band that was open to both students and adults—and that’s when the members of M-Town Jazz Jam first met and united as a performing group with a mission. “We decided early on that beyond playing music and having fun, we wanted to do something to give back to the community. We wanted to share our passion for music education, and do our part to help the kids,” Dave Bermingham says.

Band members Dave Ahern, saxophone; Link Hansen, piano; Dale Storer, bass; Garrett White, drums; and Bermingham, guitar, decided to branch out and form their own jazz ensemble that would perform year round—and give local students an opportunity to master their instruments and sharpen their stage presence while developing jazz improvisation skills in a combo setting.

The jazz band teamed up with local private instructors and music teachers from area schools to recruit students for their ensemble, and since their first performance at Shawnee Jazz Fest, M-Town Jazz Jam has been playing for packed audiences at South Jersey venues and festivals such as Coffee Works in Voorhees and the Medford Art, Wine and Music Festival. “Even when a school does have a music program, there’s not a lot of opportunity for kids to experiment with different styles of music … or to perform,” says Voorhees resident Jeff Fritz, who connected with M-Town Jazz Jam after catching one of the band’s performances in his hometown. His children, Jennifer, 16, and Jake, 11, are two of M-Town’s rising stars—saxophonist Jake is the group’s youngest musician, and Jennifer regularly performs as a vocalist with the group.

“I’m a firm believer that music education helps kids with a whole lot of other things in their lives,” he says. “I’ve seen firsthand how any musical experience helps kids build their social skills and self-confidence, which they’ll need no matter what they choose to do later in life.”

While the band members are all experienced musicians, the cornerstone of an M-Town Jazz Jam performance has become the students who are given the chance to take the spotlight. The group has already rehearsed and performed with some 30 students ranging from late elementary school to college-level performers since their inception.

“We have some students play with us who I think may be better than we are,” Bermingham says. “We’re a very inclusive group and we don’t hold auditions or have fees … if they have the desire and a little ability, we’ll support and encourage them.” Lately, Bermingham says it’s becoming a challenge to squeeze all of the young musicians who are interested in participating into each show.

When the songs are more complicated, the band members work with students independently to help them hone their skills, whether they’re an accomplished vocalist or just started taking guitar lessons. “The band members are really experienced, and they help us improve and give us advice … and that has really boosted my confidence,” Jennifer Fritz says. “I do sing in the choir at my school, but we don’t get that kind of one-on-one time or have an opportunity to perform other kinds of music, like jazz.”

“It’s really fun to learn new things, and when I’m having trouble with a song, M-Town helps me out,” adds Jake Fritz, who has been playing the saxophone for about a year.

Beyond giving students the chance to shine on stage, M-Town Jazz Jam has been pouring their efforts into an even greater cause: inspiring more kids to pick up that instrument in the first place. “We’re working to raise money to offer scholarships for beginning instrumentalists who might be in fourth or fifth grade but no longer have the option to take music lessons in school, as well as for those students who are entering college,” Bermingham explains.

To that end, the core band members recently established the South Jersey Music Education Partnership, Inc. to further their efforts in raising awareness of the importance of music education in South Jersey’s schools. The non-profit’s first major fund­raising initiative was recording a live performance CD featuring many of the students that have appeared with the group. They were able to raise $3,600 to produce the album, released last March, and 100 percent of the proceeds from the CD sales were earkmarked for student scholarships.

This summer, 45 Medford elementary and middle school students were enrolled in 10-week lessons at the town’s New Jersey School of Music.

“We’re just trying to give kids an opportunity to play, and we’ll continue to fight for music education,” Bermingham says. The band is still lobbying to bring back the elementary school music education program in township schools, and they schedule gigs featuring their young protégés about once a month.

“When kids have an opportunity to be involved in music, it’s an outlet for us to express ourselves and it helps us with other areas of our education,” Jennifer Fritz

concludes. “When schools cut music programs, a lot of kids never pick up that instrument again; this is a great way for all of us to stay involved and keep playing.”

For more information about the group, visit MTownJazz.com.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 5 (August, 2013).
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