“I said this was Fat Tuesday, not lazy Tuesday.” JP (short for Jean Paul) Balmat, the music director at Mission Bay High School laughs, but he is listening. His star pupils, the Preservationists, a NOLA-style jazz group are running down a song in the band room.
To a casual listener, the group (formerly known as the Mission Bay High School Dixieland Jazz Band) are startlingly accomplished. But Balmat hears something. He brandishes a clarinet. He wants the drums on the brushes to stir the pot as he puts it, and he wants more dynamics.
“Think about the build,” he says, “and the collapse.” He demonstrates what he wants with his clarinet and then he counts it off. The students attack the line.
NOLA, meaning authentic New Orleans-Louisiana jazz is certainly not cool by any high schooler’s standards. In contrast to hiphop, r&b, trance, metal, or whatever the second line hip factor among teens is about zero.
But if that bothers any of the dozen instrumentalists and two vocalists in this group, it doesn’t show. They play each note with heat, like they mean it.
Brandon Cerquedo, 18, is the group's guitarist/banjoist. He thinks music in general and membership in the Preservationists helped turn his life around. “I was trouble,” he says. “In middle school, I was really bad.” Cerquedo lives in City Heights, is bussed to Mission Bay high each day.
“When I was a freshman my mom got me in the music program.” He wanted to play guitar, but his mom wouldn’t allow it. They settled on flute.
But flute or not, Cerquedo bit. He practiced, and he brought up his grades. His mom finally relented and hooked him up with a guitar, an electric.
“I started playing rock. But then, I heard blues, BB King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. From blues, I ended up liking jazz even more.” And that, he says, really changed his life. He keeps an A and B grade average now.
“I won’t let him play in the band without passing grades,” Balmat says.
Mission Bay high may be Frank Zappa’s Alma mater (the same can be said for Warped Tour faves Pierce the Veil,) but the music program here has a jazz history that goes back twenty years or more. Balmat, a Pacific Beach native and jazz saxist in the Euphoria Jazz Band is himself a Buccaneer.
He went through the music program at San Diego State University and came back to Mission Bay with a mission: to make this the hub of jazz in California.
“The cool thing is that even though we play traditional jazz we also play a lot of student compositions. We adapt to our backgrounds. We’ve got six different nationalities in the Preservationists. We’re a melting pot, just like New Orleans.”
Balmat explains that Mission Bay High is a magnet school. “80 percent of our students are bussed in.” Most, he says, are from low income households. He says they get out and play at least 40 events a year. “This is the only youth band doing traditional New Orleans music in Southern California.”
The group used to be known for their signature red striped 1920s vintage costumes, as they were for their music. Balmat opted to trade the decades old look in for more casual modern dress in 2011.
“I know there are people who miss the old outfits,” he said. “Heck, I miss them sometimes. Tradition is hard to break, but I feel it’s always necessary to move forward, still paying respect to the ones before us.”
The update extended to the music as well. Whereas the band was previously known primarily as a Dixieland group, the current incarnation’s sound is slightly more expansive. “The Preservationists play something close to traditional New Orleans jazz, with influences of swing, blues, and more straight ahead jazz. Just like New Orleans, it’s a melting pot of ideas, influences and sounds.”