All-State Jazz Conductor Says Working With Student Musicians is Intense, Exhilarating

During his junior and senior years in high school, Don Zentz vividly remembers playing with other talented students in the Florida Music Educators Association all-state jazz band.

“There is a natural exuberance about it, making good music with kids you’ve never played with before,” said Zentz. “It was hard work, but I really treasure that time.”

Today, Zentz works to create that kind of experience for students when he guest conducts all-state jazz bands, most recently for the Maine Music Educators Association. He also adjudicates music competitions.

Zentz shares his enthusiasm for the saxophone with some of his Bolles students.

A jazz saxophonist and MENC member, Zentz is the director of fine and performing arts at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. Previously he served as the music director of the St. Johns River City Band, Florida’s official band, where he has been a saxophonist since 1988.

Zentz has taught high school as well as on the college level, including at the University of North Florida, where UNF jazz education pioneer Rich Matteson hired him. There’s symmetry to their work together. Matteson was the conductor when Zentz played in the all-state jazz band in high school.

“I left that conference knowing I wanted to be a band director,” Zentz recalls. “Now I enjoy teaching and motivating students as much as I like playing.” He discusses working with state MEAs to create an all-state band from rehearsal to performance.

Don Zentz enjoys the performing areas of his career, too.

How did you come to love jazz music?
I grew up in Buffalo with a parent and grandparent who were semi-professional jazz musicians. We had jazz playing in the house all of the time.

What is your process for working with a state MEA?
It’s always such an honor to be chosen, and I’m always very grateful for that opportunity. I work with an MEA jazz band to make it a good experience for all of the kids. Often I’m asked at the beginning of the school year, and I make plans from there, based on their audition deadlines.

Please discuss how you select the music for the finale concert?
The chair will tell me the strengths of the students selected. It might be a really good horn section or saxophonists. I select the music based on the strengths of the group. There are some great charts out there. In one case I was able to adjudicate the auditions as well, so I was well aware of the strengths of each student. A typical combo has five trumpets, five saxophonists and percussionists, a bass player, a vibraphonist, and other horns. Students see the music before they come to all-state.

What is the rehearsal and performance experience like?

It is exhausting work because there’s a lot of ground to cover. It takes a while for the group to jell. The kids are excited and nervous, so that first rehearsal day can be kind of rough. The kids are all good, but they come thinking of themselves as individual players because they are playing with new musicians. I try to pace them so they keep up their energy and their enthusiasm and not wear out their chops.
By the second rehearsal, things develop into something great, something cohesive. It’s a brief, very intense, and exhausting few days, but the concert is always exciting. For some of these kids, the whole experience will be life changing.

You are something of a student of jazz music education; can you discuss some of what you know about the origins?

Historically, after World War II, a lot of musicians had played in jazz service bands. When they came back they used the G.I. Bill to go back to school and became music teachers. They wanted to share jazz music with kids. The biggest problem at that time was finding music to play. Stan Kenton [the well-known pianist, composer, arranger, and band leader] was one of the first to run jazz band camps and very early made his music available to music teachers.

Any tips for today’s jazz music educators?

The great thing is that there is such great music out there and outstanding jazz educators everywhere sharing their passion with students. And there are so many resources. I like YouTube. You can discuss Basie or Ellington, but watching them actually perform is great for kids. They learn from that. Jazz educators have so many materials and resources to help students succeed.

Jazz Resources from MENC

Smithsonian Jazz

Music Education Week Jazz Academy

Roz Fehr, April 7, 2011. © MENC: The National Association for Music Education

Photos courtesy of Don Zentz