By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Saxophonists Justin Bartlett and Matthew Pearl of Marlborough earned an impressive credit for their resumes. They performed at this year’s 63rd annual Newport Jazz Festival with the Massachusetts Music Educators’ Association (MMEA) All-State Jazz Band. Bartlett is a 2017 Marlborough High School (MHS) graduate, entering his freshman year as a jazz studies major at Temple University in Philadelphia. Pearl is beginning his junior year at MHS.
Their festival gig followed successful auditions and performances at the district and state levels. Only 18 instrumentalists were chosen for the all-state jazz band, of which Bartlett was one of two alto saxophonists and Pearl was one of two tenor saxophonists. Observing their longtime dedication as musicians is Gary Piazza, who has directed them in the MHS Jazz Ensemble and MHS Marching Panther Band.
“I couldn’t be more proud of these boys,” Piazza declared. “They take their music seriously enough that they’re in a practice room whenever there’s a window of opportunity in the school day or afterward.”
The process that culminated with the Newport Jazz Festival began Nov. 19, 2016, when they auditioned at the MMEA’s Senior Central District Festival, held at North Middlesex Regional High School in Townsend. Students from four counties auditioned for the chorus, concert, jazz and orchestra honor ensembles.
For the honor jazz ensemble, students were evaluated for their interpretation of a jazz solo, improvisation of a blues progression, and sight-reading music. Accepted at the district level, Bartlett and Pearl performed with their ensemble Jan. 14 at Mechanics Hall in Worcester. The local saxophonists were also readying themselves for their next step in the process, Piazza noted.
“While preparing for the district-level concert, they are looking at the state-level audition music,” he said. “The state level upped the standards in many respects.”
Also successful at the state-level auditions Jan. 21 at Shrewsbury High School, Bartlett and Pearl performed March 11 with the MMEA All-State Jazz Band at Symphony Hall in Boston. There, the all-state band’s renowned conductor Ron Carter announced they’d perform Aug. 6 at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Each a multi-instrumentalist, Pearl also plays clarinet and Bartlett is a pianist. Bartlett played saxophone in the MHS marching band his freshmen and sophomore years, then served as drum major as a junior and senior. Pearl marched in the band playing clarinet as a freshman, saxophonist as a sophomore and he’s this year’s junior drum major.
While the young saxophonists took private after-school lessons, they helped each other along the way to ultimately participate with the all-state jazz band, Pearl noted.
“I give a lot of credit to Justin; he’s like a big brother,” he shared. “Justin really motivated me and we became good friends working together for the district and state levels. Mr. Piazza would meet with us and helped us a lot, too. Being a part of the MHS Jazz Ensemble, Mr. Piazza and the band have helped me become a more confident, expressive player.”
Pearl and Bartlett had attended the Newport Jazz Festival previously as spectators. Now, they appreciate the opportunity to have performed there with this year’s all-state band.
“The band played at a standard in which the whole performance was so much fun,” Pearl recalled. “It was like we were all just jamming together instead of performing a concert.”
Bartlett noted, “Playing at Symphony Hall was great and the rehearsals leading up to it were intense. Then finally seeing it all pay off at the Newport Jazz Festival was really amazing. It’s such a historically significant jazz stage.”
Looking forward to the next step in his musical education, Bartlett expressed gratitude for his experience at MHS.
“Mr. Piazza is a good teacher who constantly pushes you to be better,” he said. “I’ll miss him a lot and it’s sad that I’m leaving Matt. I’ll miss my friends and the jam sessions we had. Marlborough has a strong music program.”
Piazza has worked as a music educator for 34 years, 27 at MHS. The appreciation of the musical and personal relationships with his students is mutual.
“These kids’ commitment to the art of music keeps me young,” he said. “They keep me energized to start a new school year and do it all over again.”