Jazz ensemble wins gold at state competition


By Kate Grabowski and Jenny Lee

Photo by Evan Ng

On March 9, South’s Jazz Ensemble competed in the annual Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education (MAJE) festival and received perfect scores from all the judges. The ensemble qualified to advance to the state finals on March 25, where they received perfect scores again and won gold. 

Seniors Yuao Zhou, Aleksander Xhoja and Jude Seiner won outstanding soloists awards for Newton South, in addition to senior Aleksander Xhoja winning Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the Northeast district. 

Joining via invitation or audition, the Jazz Ensemble spends the whole school year preparing for performances and festivals. 

They have participated in four competitions and six concerts this year. Sophomore and alto saxophonist Silas Schenker said he and the other members have been rigorously preparing for the MAJE competitions. 

“We go over the music, get solos in order and figure out who’s doing what,” he said. “I’ve listened to some of these pieces 20 or 30 times, so I can really get the music inside my head and know what happens, when it happens and how it happens down to every minute detail.”

In addition to the MAJE festival, the Jazz Ensemble consistently participates in the Mingus Festival, and, in 2018 and 2021, they were invited to Essentially Ellington, a jazz competition hosted by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York whose finalists would travel to New York City to perform in the finals in front of world-class musicians.

These memorable competitions inspire and motivate the band’s musicians. Senior Aleksander Xhoja, winner of MAJE’s MVP and jazz ensemble pianist, said these competitions were valuable experiences that encouraged him to work on his music. 

“I participated in the Essentially Ellington and Mingus festivals a couple of times and those were phenomenal experiences,” he said. “Coming out to New York City and being out in the open music scene really does provide a sense of inspiration to me and a sense of motivation to continue doing what I’m doing and to continue to develop my craft.”

Xhoja said that the quality of his music is his main focus, rather than the awards — his success doesn’t affect the content of the music he creates.

“I believe that when we play as a band, and this is for every single musician, we’re more focused on how we sound,” he said. “That’s the true reward and the true outcome that we strive and work for. I’m practicing because I want to have a good sound, inspire people and create and tell my story through my music.” 

Band director Lisa Linde said that students of different grades collaborating and teaching each other leads to the band’s successes and allows them to improve over time.

“This goes back years because it’s not just this group of students,” she said. “It’s the culmination of many years and many students helping the younger students, and they just keep getting a little bit better each year.”

Sophomore and trumpet player Adam Sheena said the students’ love for jazz is a key factor in this achievement.

“Everyone’s love and joy towards playing the music is something that really motivates us all,” he said. “I know in middle school and some high school bands, people just aren’t motivated to play, and they kind of clock out while they play the music. That’s absolutely not the case with our group.”

Four jazz competitions later, Shenker said that his love for performing only continues to grow. 

“I love the competitions because I love being able to play on stage in front of people and jazz ensemble has given me the opportunity to do this quite often,” he said. “It’s an awesome experience every single time I get to do what I love in this group.”

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