LE MARS, Iowa | I get the long and short of it Monday in Le Mars, as well as healthy doses of versatility, graciousness and enthusiasm while traipsing around the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival.
It may be the best high school event I have the privilege to cover each year.
Think I'm kidding? When I approach to interview Sibley-Ocheyedan High School's fantastic trumpeter, Marie Jeppesen, she looks up and says, "Thanks for coming!" (She does look up, often, as she stands 5 feet, 6 inches. She plays next to fellow trumpeter Devan Vander Veen, who tips the tape at 6 feet, 9 inches.)
She thanks me for attending. I don't get that from too many high schoolers -- or college students.
It continues with reaction from Okoboji High School senior trumpet/flugelhorn star Tyler Ohl. When I ask him about the quality of his performance, he turns the tables.
"What did you think of it?" he asks.
To me, he sounded fantastic in carrying his band through "Satin 'n Glass," Okoboji's ballad. It's the main reason I interview him.
"If it sounded good to you, it sounded good to me," he says with a grin.
I find out more that makes me smile. Ohl memorized "Satin 'n Glass" while flying to and from Boise, Idaho, in December. He put a pair of headphones over his ears and left the music on silent. He sat and stared at the sheet music, committing each note to memory.
"When it comes to music, I think I kind of have a photographic memory," he says.
The memory serves Greg Forney's Okoboji High School jazz band well.
Ohl follows accomplished footsteps. Older brother Matthew Ohl played lead trombone for Okoboji when the band topped the Class 2A field in the 2010 Iowa Jazz Championships. Tyler Ohl was an eighth-grader sitting in the crowd that day.
As a freshman, Tyler Ohl took part on the state champion jazz unit at Okoboji. Since then, these musicians have finished fifth and second, watching as regional rival Alta-Aurelia has captured the Class 2A crown. Okoboji and Alta-Aurelia finish first and second on Monday, claiming berths in the Iowa Jazz Championships set for April 8 in Des Moines.
Brittany Kolbeck, a junior at Okoboji High, takes apart her drums as I enter her space in the gymnasium. Kolbeck is fired up after having completed her solo stints in both drums and vibes during the same song, "500 Miles High."
She's a junior and hopes to one day be a rock star. (I asked her to name her dream job, you know.)
"I always worry I'm going to fall," she explains, telling me how she has to watch her step in going from drums to vibraphone in a section of the song. "I shouldn't jinx myself by talking about it."
She doesn't slip on Monday. The music doesn't, either. Only a bass amplifier balks, causing Forney to cast a curious glance as he sits on a table in the library, listening while his band find its rhythm before shelves of non-fiction.
Finding rhythm? According to Jeppesen, the catch phrase is "in the pocket." And that's where she believes the Sibley-Ocheyedan jazz spent its time during its library show.
"I'm usually really critical of our performance, but today I feel really good about how we played. We were in the pocket," she says.
Sibley-Ocheyedan qualified for the Iowa Jazz Championships in 2013, first time in years. The goal is to make it back. The Generals capture third place on Monday and remain in contention for a state berth via the wildcard process.
Fellow trumpet soloist Devan Vander Veen remembers the 2013 Iowa Jazz Championships in Des Moines. He paid $15 and hopped on a charter bus at Sibley to go watch his classmates perform.
"We graduated some good trumpet players last year," says Vander Veen, the day's tallest trumpeter. "I was always busy with basketball and FFA, so I didn't do jazz band. Then Mr. (Peter) Carlson asked me, last spring. He told me that I didn't know how good I could be."
How many times did Carlson ask? The question brings a smile to Vander Veen's face. "He asked every week until I told him I would," he says.
The Sibley-Ocheyedan senior says he loves playing in the jazz band. He loves performing with his friends, reaching for a goal and, maybe, most of all, pleasing a teacher who goes about building a top-notch program in the competitive 2A field.
"Mr. Carlson has that connection with us," Vander Veen says. "You do not want to let him down."