Debbie Croft: Jazz festival brings pros to foothill students, fans

January 31, 2013 

It's the opportunity of a lifetime for middle school and high school music students. Each year, the Columbia College Jazz Festival brings well-known jazz artists to the campus for an educational weekend with some of the biggest names in jazz.

The festival was founded 34 years ago by Rod Harris, director of Columbia's jazz program.

This event takes place today and Saturday at noon. Great music starts again Saturday at 11 a.m. The public is welcome to the Dogwood Theater on campus to listen to the students perform. Daytime events are free.

"But the highlight of both evenings is when the pros come out to play," Harris says. Tickets are required for admission to Friday and Saturday evenings' concerts. Show times Friday are at 5:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday's concert starts at 5 p.m.

Bruce Weinberger is the music teacher and band director at Sierra High School in Tollhouse.

In a career spanning close to three decades, he has taken his students to the jazz festival for 15 years.

What is it that brings him back year after year?

"I love this festival. It's all about education and not competition. The kids get to hear other school jazz bands. And Rod brings in top-notch professionals," Weinberger says.

As 500 students travel this week to the small community in the pines, they have much to look forward to. Besides enjoying the scenic campus, the kids attend clinics with the artists on both afternoons to learn how to improve their skills.

Of course, they'll listen to other school groups perform and hear expert musicians play. But for many, the best part will be jamming on stage with the pros.

Jazz ensembles from 16 Northern California schools are on the festival program, including Los Banos High School and Merced's Golden Valley High School.

Guest artists include Mic Gillette, trumpet and trombone legend; recording artist Mike Rocha on trumpet; big band composer Bob Secor on piano; and Paul Contos from Monterey's Jazz Festival on saxophone and flute.

At the age of 4, Gillette picked up a trumpet and learned to read music. An original member of Tower of Power, he recorded and toured with Santana, Huey Lewis and the Doobie Brothers.

Rocha graduated magna cum laude at the renowned Berklee College of Music. He toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra for one year. Currently his performances take him all over the Los Angeles area. He also plays in Disneyland's Five and Dime Band.

Secor has written more than 300 arrangements for orchestra, concert band and jazz band. His music has been heard on numerous television and radio productions.

Contos is the educational director for the Monterey Jazz Festival. He also records and performs worldwide.

The college big band invited local musicians Ken Taylor (trombone), Clinton Day (bass) and Mario Flores (congas) to join the fun.

Concerts will feature selections from Henry Mancini and Ray Charles, plus some swing hits, Latin melodies and Dixieland favorites.

Call (209) 588-5126 for ticket reservations. Or purchase tickets at the college bookstore or the Mountain Bookshop in Sonora.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at

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