Like a scene from a movie, the Duluth East jazz band found its members going from thinking "maybe next year" to winning first place in a regional competition last month.

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"It was a really cool experience," said band director Blake Peterson, "and it was a testament to all the kids' hard work that they had put in because the music that we picked was not easy at all, and we worked really, really hard on it."

East played "Swing that Music," arranged by Wycliffe Gordon, a fast swing piece, and "Open Your Eyes," written by Adam Meckler, a Minnesota composer who wrote the piece about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Peterson said he enjoys his role inspiring and guiding young people. By the time he was out of fifth grade, he knew he wanted to be a teacher.

"My fifth-grade teacher was absolutely amazing, and I wanted to have that impact," Peterson said. He just wasn't sure how to go about doing that. "I didn't know what I wanted to teach. I liked music. I liked art."

Band director Blake Peterson conducts a recent practice of the Duluth East jazz band. Steve Kuchera /
Band director Blake Peterson conducts a recent practice of the Duluth East jazz band. Steve Kuchera /
Since 2013, Peterson has shepherded a number of different bands at East. The school has a freshman band, concert band, wind ensemble and jazz band. These groups are always playing, practicing and performing, and Peterson admitted it's a lot to juggle.

"All in all, there's about 220 kids in the program," he said, "but I delegate a lot of responsibility to my student leaders, which is cool on a couple different levels. They have ownership in the program."

As anyone who ever learned an instrument can attest, repetition is the key to knowledge. Peterson's students play on the daily, so he's able to work in some challenging repertoire.

"All these classes meet every day, which is absolutely huge," he said. "And really, really integral to the quality of the music. You can watch the kids grow over the school year.

"On top of that," Peterson continued, "we do sectionals, where all the saxophones and trumpets and trombones will come in, and they'll work on their music. For example, every Monday at 7:30 until jazz band starts (at 8 a.m. daily), my rhythm section comes in, and they rehearse together. I'll start them off at the beginning of the school year, and I'll essentially run the show, and then, little by little, I'll pull back and have them take the reins a little bit. By the end of the year, they're running everything by themselves. So, they have a lot more ownership and accountability in what they're doing."

It's a valuable lesson that is applicable to just about every aspect of adult life: learn by observation and instruction, then apply those concepts to your own life and behavior. Peterson's not just teaching kids how to play in tune and on time - he's teaching them how to work together.

The band's big adventure this year was surely a tangible lesson in what hard work and dedication can bring. The Eau Claire Jazz Festival was something East had been a part of in the past, but, this April, the group found themselves achieving something they hadn't anticipated.

"We're trying to get (the students) out in the community to perform like a professional ensemble as much as possible," Peterson said. "And, so, part of that is competition and listening to others perform. Our very first competition was the Head of the Lakes Jazz Festival over at UMD. You perform in the morning, and then you get adjudicated by professional musicians. And then you listen to other jazz bands from other schools. So, we can listen to them and kind of compare ourselves, like, 'Oh, that sounds really cool - we should do that.'"

"We started going to the Eau Claire jazz fest about three years ago," Peterson said. "The first year we went, I asked the kids: 'Do you want to compete?' and the kids decided not to, because they wanted to get a feel for the festival."

Duluth East jazz band member Dani Likar plays a conga during a recent practice. Steve Kuchera /
Duluth East jazz band member Dani Likar plays a conga during a recent practice. Steve Kuchera /
The second time around, the band decided to give competition a try. They didn't place.

This year, something happened - the group took in a headlining performance by musician Grace Kelly that electrified all involved. "The kids got really pumped," Peterson said. He adds that, this year, the festival was held in the new Pablo Center at the Confluence, a place that Peterson said was inspiring in its beauty: "That probably helped us with getting hyped up."

The next morning, the jazz band performed for the festival judges, one of whom was a trombonist for the U.S. Army Blues Band. "They gave us some really good feedback, and they were also very pleased with our performance," Peterson said. "We didn't really think we had performed that well. We knew we could play a little better."

From there, it was on to the public performance. The group did two preplanned tunes and were asked to sight-read another piece. "We got there, and we get, like, four minutes to talk about the piece," Peterson said. "And then, the judge said 'Time's up,' and we start. We're not allowed to stop or fix anything."

"We were feeling okay about it," Peterson said of the group's performance. No one was doing backflips, though. "We never really expected to win anything. We would've been happy even if we placed." When the previous year's champs from Roseville were announced as the third-place winners, Peterson said he "looked down the row at my kids, and one of them said, 'Well, there's always next year.'"

When the East jazz band was announced as the first-place winners, Peterson said their dumbfounded responses were uniform. "We were like, 'Huh.' We didn't know how to react."

After Peterson collected the award, shock was already in the process of turning into elation. Suddenly, the band wasn't going home directly after the awards ceremony. They were now going to be performing their material again as conquering heroes in front of 1,500 people.

"It was all quite surreal," Peterson said. "This was a very special moment for us."

About the festival

The Eau Claire Jazz Festival draws more than 100 bands from across the Midwest for the two-day event, held April 26-27 this year. About 3,000 audience members attend the festival, which features professional headliners and student competitions.

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Hear the band

The Duluth East jazz band's final concert this school year is Wednesday, May 29, at 7 p.m. at Duluth Folk School, 1917 W. Superior St.