Le MARS, Iowa | Signs of spring emerged on Monday as the sun began to melt mountains of snow across Siouxland.

Birds chirped while pitchers and catchers readied for trips south, awakening the 2016 major league baseball season.

Music warmed the air, too, specifically at Le Mars Community Middle School and Le Mars Community High School, site of the 2016 Northwest Iowa District Jazz Festival.

Forty-five high school and middle school jazz bands reported to Le Mars on Monday, each attempting to wow judges and spectators alike. To the best high school groups, the reward is a berth in the prestigious 2016 Iowa Jazz Championships on April 5 in Des Moines.

"We want to win the Iowa Jazz Championships," said Ben Aberson, a senior trombone soloist for the jazz band from South O'Brien High School. "That's the goal."

Aberson was joined on the stage with several of his fellow South O'Brien soloists, including Garrett Wagner, a classmate. While Aberson wooed with his trombone, Wagner held forth with a bass trombone.

Wagner sported suspenders and necktie; Aberson opted for one his two bow ties. The aim? Sound good while looking good.

"I like the way suspenders look and feel," Wagner said.

"I'd wear my suspenders, but they snapped and broke," Aberson admitted. "I tried to fix them, but I bent them in the process."

The bow tie represents Aberson's nod to sartorial skill and style. Not everyone, he said, can tie a real bow tie. Maybe, that sets him apart.

Actually, his trombone mastery does as much. Aberson was coming off an Outstanding Soloist honor in the recent Morningside College Jazz Festival. He looked to add to his resume with the Northwest Iowa District event, soaring through two selections as featured soloist for a jazz unit directed by Brian Cole.

"Today's performance went really well," said Aberson, a three-time participant in the state cross country meet. "We keep getting better and bringing more intensity to each performance."

"We were together and focused today," said Wagner of the band's effort.

South O'Brien, which has won titles this year at both Morningside and Iowa Lakes Community College, seeks to improve upon a fourth-place effort in Class 1A last year at the Iowa Jazz Championships. That finish represents the best effort, thus far, during the prep careers of these two musicians.

"The goal is to win state," said Aberson, who recently joined Wagner and several South O'Brien FFA members in a meats judging competition at a national show in Denver, Colorado.

The pair also participate in basketball for the Wolverines, one of the top Class 1A teams in Northwest Iowa, a squad that begins its quest for a second consecutive state tournament berth with a home game on Thursday.

While South O'Brien topped the field on Monday in Class 1A, another perennial Iowa Jazz Championships participant, Alta-Aurelia, claimed third-place honors in Class 2A, led by trombone soloist Shawn Henley, a senior who earned Outstanding Soloist accolades as a sophomore at the 2014 Iowa Jazz Championships, when Alta-Aurelia won the last of three straight state titles.

"As a group this year, this is the best we've done," Henley commented after the 10 a.m. performance, one in which he commanded the band's "Oneida" ballad from start to finish.

Henley, a football center for the Warriors, who also dabbles in speech, choir and jazz choir, said jazz band rates as his favorite school activity.

"He's a two-time all-stater in jazz band and will try to make it again this year, in March," said Corbet Butler, Alta-Aurelia director.

Like the trombonists for South O'Brien, Henley keeps busy with his music and the other school activities. He also works at Fareway in Cherokee, Iowa, on the weekends.

When does he sleep?

"Good question," Henley answered with a smile. "I guess I sleep when I get the chance."

With the bronze medal effort on Monday, Henley might face a little sleeplessness, waiting to see if his band secures a wild-card berth in the Iowa Jazz Championships, one that could come as a result of steady performances throughout this season.

If Alta-Aurelia gets a ticket to IJC, Henley could grab his "40 winks" on the bus, as it cruises to Des Moines.



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