Michael Benge says the Grossmont Union High School District’s jazz honor band could use an angel this year. Not the kind with wings — the kind that writes checks. Benge is associate music director at Helix High. He also plays trombone with the B-Side Players. As such, he tapped his pro-musician connections to entice Latin jazz bandleader Poncho Sanchez to take part in this year’s program in May.
Benge’s hope is to have Sanchez rehearse and gig with the students selected to be in the honor jazz band and then play a district fundraiser at West Hills High School in Santee with his own group.
“He’ll be our guest artist, as well as playing with the student band.”
But in order to make this happen, Benge needs additional funding. Even though the Grammy-winning conguero has reduced his asking price significantly (Benge won’t say by how much), the Parent Music Advisory Group that generally underwrites such extracurricular activities is balking at the fee. “The parents are hesitant to sign a contract.”
Benge did manage to retain Francisco Torres from the Sanchez band to be guest musical director, a cost that will be covered by the school district. He says the idea to hire Sanchez began to grow last year after local trumpet player Gilbert Castellanos served as guest musician.
“When he came to rehearse, I could see the kids’ expressions change. They’d never worked with anybody of his caliber before.” The jazz honor band program is an annual seminar that takes place over three days. And the presence of pro jazzers, Benge thinks, helps to legitimize band class on campus.
“Kids in marching band get made fun of. It’s not cool, now, is it? But you’re gonna tell me Gilbert Castellanos is not cool?”
Benge remembers the first time he was in an honor jazz band and got to work with a pro trombone player. “I had no idea my horn could do all the stuff that his was doing, being limited to the repertoire that was available in school. It changed my life, that one experience.” That was when Benge decided to become a musician.
“Kids fall in love with the activity of being in band, the camaraderie. It’s another thing entirely to fall head over heels in love with music.”
But why does high school band culture have no cool factor? Blame it on the current state of pop music, Benge says. “There’s not a lot of stuff on the radio with horns. Back in the ’70s, there was Sly and the Family Stone, Chicago, Tower of Power, the whole R&B thing. But R&B isn’t really R&B anymore, and bands aren’t traveling with horns.”