Out of the canyon and onto the road

Chinle (Ariz.) High School’s ensemble goes on tour


The Chinle, Ariz., Jazz Band and Guitar Ensemble will be performing in Arizona, Utah, and Colorado in April. Photo by Sonja Horoshko

Jazz improv is a conversation, says Eric Swanson, guitar, band and jazz ensemble teacher at Chinle High School in Arizona. “It’s like language, sharing ideas, connecting.”

This month, that musical conversation will move out of a remote canyon in the Navajo Nation and on the road. This is the first professional venue tour of the Chinle High School Jazz Band and Guitar Ensemble.

It’s a rigorous schedule. “Four performances and one workshop in four days is tough, but they’re first-class musicians and are ready for the road,” says Swanson.

Performance stops will include Red Mesa, Ariz., Aneth, Utah, and two in Durango, Colo.

The tour emulates reality, the professional experience, what it feels like to play for the public. Students are accustomed to the intensity of more typical competitive guitar festivals and concerts at other schools. Swanson knows they are valuable, educational and help a student, “but they’re not really musically experiential. The tour is the real thing.”

When Swanson, a guitarist, applied for the position, the school system told him he could teach his instrument. He began by offering ensemble curriculum for guitar and jazz that leads to performance and masterful musicianship, which, he says, “is the level of where we are today. The students are very advanced musicians, and show remarkable growth over the past four years.”

Now, their dedication is being rewarded.

Ten advanced students make up the Chinle High School Guitar Ensemble and Jazz Band. All but two in the group are seniors. They’ve been together for a long time.

As beginners Swanson required them to perform before an audience. He told them it was important for them to come out of their shell.

“Oh, they were so scared, some even had excuses for staying home, but after their first public initiation they just glowed,” he says. “Now they say it feels so good and it’s awesome. It’s an infectious experience, the students become music junkies and then there’s a general feeling that they’re addicted to the art of music,” he adds.

Chinle is located beside the scenic tourist destination Canyon de Chelly, in the Navajo Nation, Ariz. Traditional values embedded in the culture influence family and community activities. Students are asked to do a lot of chores at home – babysit, herd sheep, haul water and wood.

According to Swanson, the Chinle afterschool music, sports, and arts programs are popular with the young people. Forty percent of the students take advantage of staying after school to have something to do besides chores.

Ninety-eight percent of the Chinle students qualify for free lunch program in the community where adult unemployment hovers near 50 percent.

That percentage has provided the school with the opportunity to provide instruments for the students while they are in high school.

But once the students get in the groove, they want to own their own instruments. Even though some students already own their own, most wait to buy until after graduation.

Eight of the 10 advanced students are seniors and plan on attending college next fall.

Swanson is encouraged by their growth as musicians and human beings. “They have remarkable skill and the interest to develop it.”

Advanced students compete and many win a place in the Northeast Arizona State Honor Band where 150 students try out for only 40 positions.

The 10 students in jazz and guitar ensemble are high-caliber musicians accustomed to the competitive world of contemporary music.

Cody Donald plays trumpet and has been in honor band three years in a row. He is also a cross-country star.

Swanson sent Donald and Brian Bainbridge, another Chinle jazz trumpeter, to Stax Summer Music Academy two years ago. They were freshmen at the time and the first Navajos to attend the academy.

Blues buffs know the Stax record label introduced soul, funk and the blues to a mainstream audience in the 1960s. The label died when Martin Luther King died.

Today a museum and foundation dedicated to the history of jazz and the Stax label artists also offers an opportunity for disadvantaged urban youth to study with professional musicians and perform at local events if they are accepted into the summer program in Memphis, Tenn.

In a May 2010 interview with the Navajo Times, Bainbridge said, “I picture Memphis as a place with musicians on every street corner, and a bunch of people milling around.”

Donald said, “It’s a chance to find out what we’re capable of. And hopefully a doorway to even bigger opportunities down the road.”

“We’ll learn about the history of our instrument and the people who played it, and maybe get as good as them,” Bainbridge added.

Like a dream come true, today they are part of the jazz milieu.

“When students come to jazz class for improvisation, I explain it’s like a conversation, a musical back-and-forth, a question and answer. I ask them who’s going to start the conversation. They love that idea.” They’ll get the science of music in college. Here, on this level, Swanson wants them to be comfortable with the conversation.

“They laugh and enjoy the improvisation, but usually come with the idea they have to play a lot of notes, fill up all the spaces, but, like language, the space, the pause, is a musical tool you can use to make your point.”

The tour includes a stop in Durango, where Swanson found support for his performance tour. The Stillwater Foundation provides music and sports programs to people 6 through 60, says music Director Steven Dejke, who has lived in Durango since 1997.

When Swanson came to him with his tour idea he recognized that the students in Chinle are enjoying a professional program that deserves support. Together the two music educators launched the idea to benefit students of both communities.

“We’re offering an afternoon workshop for 10 to 15 of our Stillwater students with the Chinle students and then they’ll do the public performance together that night,” says Dejke.

The idea that brings students from such a rural area to Durango for music is a concept that works both ways. Dejke hopes to create a musical exchange that will bring Stillwater students to Chinle.

“Music is like that. Swanson offers an excellent program, and he works hard to create links that benefit the students. We want to create a musical friendship, a sharing of the spirit of music. We are excited to be hosting this great group of young musicians.”

The Chinle High School Guitar Ensemble and Jazz Band will perform at a private venue in Aneth, on April 27. On Saturday, April 28, they join the Stillwater Foundation at an afternoon workshop.

The 7 p.m. performance at Roshong Hall in the Fort Lewis Jones Music Building is open to the public. Cost is $5 per person. For more information about the Saturday events call Stillwater at 970- 247-9055.

The final performance, for a Durango Friends Meeting, is at 5 p.m. on Sunday, April 29, at CR233, off Highway 160. There is no cover for the event, but it is a potluck gathering.

From April 2012.