Chris Harshman and the Award-Winning SWHS Jazz Band: ‘It’s All about our Community’

Posted in Feature, More Stories, Music

BY CAROLYN TAMLERSidebar-H.S.JazzBand-smallr
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
May 20, 2014

In 2008, schools in the Seattle Area accounted for five of the 15 finalists in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Competition—the most prestigious high school jazz festival in the world. The South Whidbey High School Jazz Band was one of the five.

That’s only one of the many distinctions the SWHS Jazz Band has achieved in recent years. They have been winning First Place in their division at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival for 15 years. In 2009 they were finalists in the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival. The Wind Ensemble just received a Gold Award at the Vancouver Kiwanis Music Festival in British Columbia, qualifying them for the Canadian National Music Championship.

In addition, the Jazz Ensemble has been featured on the KPLU School of Jazz CD four times.

Someone at one of the East Coast festivals once asked Director Chris Harshman, “Is there something in the water out there?”

So, what makes the South Whidbey High School Jazz Band Program so exceptional?

SWHS Jazz Ensemble (photo by Robin Bush)

SWHS Jazz Ensemble (photo by Robin Bush)

“It’s great family support and great community support. The support comes in the form of the energy provided, the financial support and the attendance at our performances,” Harshman said. “Every time I make a move to improve the Jazz Band, the whole community seems to move to support what I’m doing.”

There are currently 21 students in the Jazz Ensemble and 44 in the Concert Band, which includes most of the jazz students. They rehearse four days a week during school and often before school as well. Harshman said that many students not only practice on a regular basis but also study recordings and attend live performances. “These kids are highly committed to the program and continue to participate in many other extracurricular activities for the school and the community.”

Harshman also attributes some of their success to their unique style. “During the 1970s, many high-school jazz bands added a rock or Latin feel to their swing feeling,” he said, “but most Northwest bands stuck to the traditional way of Basie and Ellington. That feeling is highly prized by Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which sponsors Essentially Ellington. This rootedness of traditional swing in Seattle area high-school jazz bands goes a long way toward explaining why kids in this area have been so successful at Essentially Ellington.”

Chris Harshman has been involved with music since he was a small child. He came from a family of musicians; his mother and both of his brothers are professionals. He said, “In our household, we were raised with the value of music and athletics.” He started out playing jazz saxophone but found himself drawn to the bassoon, which has been his primary focus for most of his musical career.

Harshman taught in several Puget Sound area schools and lived in the Shoreline area for many years. In 1997, he and his wife Dyanne, also a musician, moved to Whidbey Island so their two sons could attend the Waldorf School. Harshman commuted to work in Shoreline for three years; then the job of Langley Middle School Jazz Band teacher opened up, and he got the position. The LMS Jazz Band already had an “exemplary reputation” when Harshman took over as the Director.

Heidi Klein on Alto Sax, Conor Workman on Tenor sax  (photo by Robin Bush)

Heidi Klein on Alto Sax, Conor Workman on Tenor sax (photo by Robin Bush)

In 2006, the job of Director of the High School Jazz Band became available and Harshman took on that role. He realized that the Middle School Band provides the talent that moves up to perform at the high school and was pleased that Jess Foley (now Monett) took his job, where she continues to groom the talented youngsters who move on. “I’ve had such fantastic talent in my classes,” Harshman said, “and many are now performing professionally.”

He came back to the original comments about the support of the community: “The community and the Band work together. Adult musicians invite the kids to play with them and many of the groups on the island tap into our resources, including the Whidbey Community Orchestra, the Saratoga Orchestra and many of the churches. There are lots of opportunities for the kids to shine.

“Music crosses so many barriers,” Harshman continued. “There is so much for each generation to learn from the other.” He concluded, “I enjoy watching all of this happening.”

Upcoming performances by the South Whidbey High School Jazz Band:

  • May 23 All Island Jazz Festival at SWHS, 7 p.m.
  • May 30 Jazz Night – Jazz ensemble performs at SWHS, 7 p.m. Free admission.

On May 27, the Concert Bands of both the High School and Langley Middle School will perform at the High School auditorium at 7 p.m. Free admission.

Photo at top: Chris Harshman directing the SWHS Wind Ensemble  (photo by Robin Bush)

Carolyn Tamler was a marketing research and community involvement consultant in the Seattle Area for many years before moving to Whidbey Island, where she has become known as a writer who enjoys telling the stories about the many businesses and entrepreneurs on the island.

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