SIOUX CITY | A 620-mile distance separating Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and Rock Rapids, Iowa, shrinks to mere feet on Wednesday as Brian Gorrell of the University of Central Oklahoma takes 30 minutes to critique the Central Lyon High School jazz band.
Gorrell has just listened as director Sherwin Langholdt's unit breezes through four songs in the spacious Eppley Auditorium, part of the Class 1A competition in the Morningside College Jazz Festival. And now, Gorrell offers his frank assessment, a system repeated for every band participating in this three-day festival.
The musicians -- and their coach -- are all ears, soaking up a pack half-hour of teachable moments.
"Do you rehearse before school?" Gorrell asks to a smattering of nods and one specific response: 7:30 a.m. "I thought so. I got a sense immediately today in your performance how seriously you take this," he says.
Gorrell challenges the group to take it more seriously. He questions tenor saxophone players: "I'm putting you on the spot here: Who is your favorite tenor saxophone player?"
He does the same with trombonists, trumpeters and across the rhythm section. The room remains quiet as students struggle to offer names.
It leads to Gorrell's first main point: Listen. Access one track from one artist and latch on. Listen to it repeatedly in free time for one week. The result: It should change and challenge one, musically.
Soloist Brendan Huisman, a senior trumpeter for Central Lyon, takes it in. Huisman, a three-time performer with this band at the Iowa Jazz Championships (the holy grail of Iowa high school jazz band circles), notes he suffered a couple of blips early in his solo turn on Wednesday. After that, he steadied himself.
"I will start listening to Louis Armstrong," he says. "He's the influence on my featured song."
A number of clinicians like Gorrell take their turns on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, offering ratings and advice to jazz bands from Omaha to Sioux Falls and points in between. Instructors direct their musicians before standing back, allowing a professional like Gorrell to hold forth with suggestions, advice, criticism and praise.
Gorrell uses an example of a parent scolding a child in a grocery store. The parent, he says, is stern without volume. That's the way musicians must play at times. It's called "quiet intensity." It's not easy.
"Who had the trumpet solo in 'Hobo Flats'?" he asks, scanning a cramped classroom above Eppley Auditorium. Andrea Korthals raises her hand.
"Tremendous," Gorrell says. "Best thing I heard all morning."
Gorrell then speaks of jazz being a language. He hopes these students, with tens of thousands of songs available at their fingertips, make room in their lives for that language, just as he did as a teen decades ago when he ordered a vinyl record at a Oklahoma City record store. He waited two weeks for it to arrive, and then promptly read the liner notes while listening to the record over and over and over. "It was an event," he says.
Senior Charlotte Berg, who plays both alto sax and clarinet, will make room for more music. Berg, another soloist, plays in every band available at Central Lyon High. This future music educator knows there is room for improvement. It's what she'll seek in time for the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival on Feb. 20 at Le Mars Community High School in Le Mars, Iowa.
Bands that finish first or second at the district meet earn an automatic berth in the Iowa Jazz Championships, where Central Lyon's jazz musicians have found themselves in 12 of the past 14 years.
Is that the goal this year?
"Of course that's the goal," Berg says. "Does that sound cocky?"
Not to me. Her response shows a level of expectation, one achieved through early practice sessions, an accomplished educator and a willingness to be all ears.