By Mike Steele
You may think of jazz music, an art form made famous in the post WWI-era of the 1920s and ‘30s, as appealing to an older crowd, but in the Princeton-based Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, you’ll find much younger jazz enthusiasts channeling their inner Coltranes.
PJO is the creation of conductor Joe Bongiovi, who works as the jazz director at Princeton High School. He decided to form this summer orchestra 10 years ago after noticing that many of his students don’t practice their instruments over the breaks between school years.“The original concept was to keep kids playing during summer months. They lose muscle and they lose ability,” he said.
The 23-piece ensemble includes several woodwind, brass, string, and percussion instrumentalists, as well as three vocalists. Ranging in age from 15 to 21, all members are high school or college students hailing from Princeton and central New Jersey.
Entrance to the group is through invitation, and Bongiovi often asks his top students and talented musicians from neighboring schools if they would like to join.
“I guess he saw potential in me and invited me along as a learning experience,” said Emily Feuer, an incoming senior at PHS who plays trumpet in PJO.
While students could potentially practice their instruments with any style of music, Bongiovi chose to form a jazz orchestra specifically to keep the summers fun and creative. He feels that his students benefit greatly from the improvisation element that jazz allows.
“Jazz is their ability to express themselves outside of classical and traditional concert music,” he said.
The group may have members much younger than the standard jazz ensemble, but Feuer enjoys not conforming to the traditional mold.
“I like the contradiction,” she said. “I’m a girl, and I’m white, and I’m young. I don’t fit the jazz stereotypes.”
Some members, like PHS graduate Rick Rein, have been honing their skills for years. Rein was introduced to jazz at a young age through various music programs in the Princeton public school system.
“I like performing jazz a lot,” said Rein, a music performance major at the University of the Arts who plays in PJO’s trumpet section. “It challenges you mentally and physically.”
Other members developed an interest in jazz more recently.
“I’ve been a classical pianist for ten years and I got interested in jazz music last years when I came to PHS and saw the band and how much fun they were having,” said incoming PHS junior Aditya Raguram, a pianist in PJO.
Frank Rein, who graduated from PHS in June and who plans to join his brother, Rick, at the University of the Arts next year to study composition, serves double duty as trombonist and arranger for the group.
“What I have to do as an arranger is adapt music for a larger instrumentation,” he said, explaining that he often takes music that was never intended for a big band to perform, and creates individual instrument parts for each musician.
“I may have to take a song written for five singers and a rhythm section and adapt it for our group,” he said.
While PJO plays standards by jazz legends like Glenn Miller, original arrangements of popular music by artists such Nora Jones, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and others also fill their 100 song repertoire.
“The cool thing about Frank’s arrangements is that he does a lot of songs that people have heard of,” Feuer said.
PJO recently returned from a mid-July excursion to Europe, having been invited to perform for two afternoons at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and touring for another eight days in Italy.
“It was a whirlwind,” Feuer said of performing 10 concerts in 10 days.
Throughout the trip, PJO performed in a variety of spaces—from an outdoor stage next to Lake Geneva, to the Castle of Proceno, to the piazza outside of their hotel.
“It was a really great experience,” Raguran said.
Audiences at the Montreux Jazz Festival had gathered from around the world, while the performances in Italy drew much more local crowds. The group chooses their repertoire based on who is in the audience, sticking to big band favorites if the bulk of the listeners are older, playing popular tunes if the group is younger, and mixing it up for a crowd varying in age.
“We base our selection on our audiences. We play it by ear on who we’re playing for,” Bongiovi said.
Bongiovi is proud of how his students handled the pressure of a rigorous tour. They gained experience working with musicians and professional sound technicians from around the world, and conducted interviews with the foreign press. Most importantly, he felt that they gained confidence in their own skills, working beside other talented musicians.
“Although they’re a student group, they’re even better than some pro groups,” Bongiovi said.
PJO will conclude its summer with several concerts throughout the month of August, including outdoor performances on Thursday, Aug. 2, at Princeton Shopping Center and on Wednesday, Aug. 22, at McCarter Theater Center’s Block Party. The band will also play two gigs at Chris’s Jazz Cafe in Philadelphia—on Wednesday, Aug. 1, and Thursday, Aug. 9. And, in what has become an annual tradition, the PJO will perform Saturday, Aug. 4, at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington.
Rick Rein is looking forward to entertaining and impressing audiences for the remainder of the season.
“After we’ve gone on tour and played every night for ten days, we sound the best we will sound all summer,” he said.
To learn more about the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra and to view its performance schedule, visit philadelphiajazzorchestra.com.