VMF Student Jazz Competition

All four delivered compelling interpretations from the jazz standards songbook.

by Paul Peterson

A curated list of top flight high school jazz talent was showcased at Squashed Grapes, on Sunday, March 18 as they competed for cash prizes and live appearances as The Ventura Music Festival produced their 12th annual Student Jazz Competition. Four young musicians from area high schools took the stage, backed by professional jazz players and performed before a packed house of fans, families and judges.

When the music ended and judges results were tallied, all four were winners. First place went to Mathew Kuperberg on piano, a senior at Agoura High School, who offered a charming version of “I’ll Never Find Another You”, second place went to Henry Urschel on alto sax who is a junior at Dos Pueblos High School, and third place was a tie between Jonah Goldstein, guitarist and also a senior at Agoura High (which speaks well of their program) and shared with Finn Dunham, on alto sax , just a freshman at Thousand Oaks High School. All four delivered adept and compelling interpretations from the jazz standards songbook and demonstrated a genuine commitment to the art form, surprising for their age and inspiring to those in the crowd.

The process of curating these musicians begins early in the year, according to VMF executive director, Susan Scott. “We begin with a wide swath of Southern California high school jazz players”, she says. They submit their performances on mp3’s to the VMF offices and in January the judges begin listening and ranking them.

“They submit their mp3’s blind, with no names to the judges, who then evaluate them”, says Charles Levin, drummer and host of the showcase. “That’s how we selected these four. There was a fifth player who was selected but couldn’t come”. Levin, along with other jazz professionals Bevan Manson on piano, and Domenic Genova on standup bass, held down the rhythm section as each musician stepped up and smoothly narrated their instrument on their chosen song. After totaling up the points, the winners were ranked and all the musicians came back up for a spirited jam on the jazz standard “The Chicken”.

This year’s judging team included such notables as the pianist Bevan Manson, Eddie Arkin and Tom Buckner, who made the selection of the winners. Each year the winners package includes $500 for the top prize, $250 for second place and $100 for third. The package also includes three or four live shows during the year including slots on VMF’s annual Rising Stars Concert, a 90-minute concert of jazz, classical and choral music, scheduled for May 18th at 8pm at the United Methodist Church. These are paying gigs for the musicians.

Adam Randall, owner of Squashed Grapes, 2351 East Main, enjoys helping the next generation of young musicians develop on his stage. Like the musicians, he wants to perpetuate the jazz art form. His wall is festooned with signed head shots of hundreds of jazz and blues artists who have graced his stage.

” We’ve had all this year’s winners perform here before but this is their first time with the contest”, he said. Randall also has plans to move Squashed Grapes to a new larger building, a few blocks away, later this year. That’s good news for jazz fans in Ventura, and for these four winners. The commitment of these people to keeping jazz alive is good news for all Venturans.

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