SIOUX CITY | Drummer Clayton Ehlers took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders and dug in on Thursday, moving through a three-song set while keeping his fellow Sioux Central High School jazz band members in rhythm at the Morningside College Jazz Festival.
Ehlers later recalled the reaction of his parents, Mike and Michelle Ehlers, of Marathon, Iowa, after he told them this fall he'd be the varsity jazz band drummer.
"Holy cow!" they said.
Ehlers, you see, is an eighth-grader, and the performer with the keys, so to speak, for the musicians who play under the direction of Adam Perry.
An eighth-grader shall lead the high school jazz band?
"I'm nervous, but I try not to show it," said Ehlers, 13. "We have a small school and I know everyone else in the band."
"I had Clayton come in, sit down and read the music," said Perry, describing a meeting before the Rebels' jazz band season began. "Clayton is talented and he showed he could do it. I have confidence in him."
Perry, now in his seventh year at the high school serving the Northwest Iowa communities of Sioux Rapids, Rembrandt, Peterson and Linn Grove, knows what it takes to climb this musical mountain. He played 18 years ago at Aurelia High School when it finished as a runner-up in the Iowa Jazz Championships.
I asked Perry if he remembered who won the title that year.
"Treynor," he answered quickly. "I'll never forget that answer: Treynor."
Following a six-year stint serving the school district at Garretson, South Dakota, Perry, a University of South Dakota alum, returned to Iowa to direct the charges at Sioux Central, where he's the lone band director serving grades 5-12, a professional who often pilots his jazz band through early morning rehearsals, a common practice for coaches throughout Iowa who vie for the time of students who also participate in speech, cheering, basketball, wrestling, show choir, jazz choir, FFA, quiz bowl, debate and more.
"It's me, myself and I," Perry said of the one-man band department.
Having an eighth-grader playing in his jazz band this season doesn't necessarily represent the machinations of a maverick. Perry tabbed trombonist Manuel Menchaca when he was an eighth-grader. Menchaca took a couple of solo turns on Thursday in what will almost surely be his final jazz band season. Which is odd, because he's just a junior.
"I'm graduating early," said Menchaca, who plans to head to the University of Iowa to study cinema.
Graduating early? Why?
"Because I can," Menchaca said with a smile. "I thought about it and I think it's the right decision for me."
Following their set at Eppley Auditorium, Sioux Central students and Perry headed upstairs to play again, a bit more informally this time as clinician Greg Sharp, professor of instrumental music and jazz at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, took them through a series of suggestions that, if enacted, could lead the band to a higher performance level.
For example, Sharp asked how many trombonists in the group listen to professional trombone players. He did the same for trumpeters, Ehlers and others. None of the musicians tossed out the name of a player in their discipline.
"If I'd ask about football players, I think you guys would give me names of players you've watched," he said. "You need to do that as musicians: Watch and listen to other musicians, even if it's just five minutes per day. You listen for a while and you'll get better."
Benny Goodman, he noted, the man responsible for two of the songs on Sioux Central's 2018 playlist, was probably more popular than Justin Timberlake back in his prime. Music was, and remains, something cool. It can be in the classroom, too, especially if high school musicians let their guard down and allow it to have an impact on them.
As Sharp spoke, judges Kevin Linder, Greg Forney and Dan Cassidy recorded their remarks and sealed their written comments in an envelope Perry would later open and digest with his students.
The process repeats today for several high schools as the festival wraps up its third day of competition. The event culminates as clinicians Sharp and Easton Stuard, who has recorded 12 albums, present a concert free of charge at 7:30 p.m. in Eppley Auditorium.
Much of the Morningside College Jazz Festival, and jazz fests the past couple of weeks, serve as tune-ups for the Northwest Iowa District Jazz Band Festival on Feb. 19 at Le Mars Community High School.
The goal for many bands, including Sioux Central's, Perry said, is to take all the information from these events and put those comments into practice, allowing a band to hit its stride when state jazz berths are on the line in Le Mars.
"When we got back to school today, the last period (of class) had already started," Perry said. "So, I just kept the kids in the band room and we listened to the judges comments."
A day of learning -- musical and otherwise -- started early, then ended late.