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Austin teacher looks to jazz up music program

Jazz band JMS0539.JPG
Friday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, Austin High School music director Brad Mariska found himself strolling the Big Easy, surrounded by clubs filled with the sound of America's only truly indigenous art form — jazz.

Back in Austin, the jazz scene pales in comparison, and has taken a back seat to other forms of music. Mariska and Nino Tarara, music director from Ellis Middle School, are looking to give the genre's profile a boost.

"The group is almost non-existent," Mariska said of the public school jazz band. But to him, jazz is worth bringing to the forefront. "It's fun. It's important."

Mariska has been beefing up the jazz program by teaching kids not only how to play jazz, but about the music's history. The classes explore different eras and aspects, such as Latin jazz, rock, and big band. Mariska also tries to put a face to what the students are playing.

"We try to spend some time on the artist," Mariska said.


The music director said he has been surprised and impressed by his students' enthusiasm for the material. It's never easy to get a teenager up at 6:45 a.m., but his students are there every day, and many of them early.

For the kids, their hard work will soon pay off. The Austin High and Ellis Middle School jazz bands will perform at the Historic Paramount Theatre in Austin on Sunday.

"I was looking for opportunities to have the kids perform and to raise their profile in the community," Mariska said.

Helping give them the chance to do so, and hopefully raise some money at the same time, was something organizers at the Paramount were more than happy to oblige. The jazz band and theater seemed a good fit.

"The reason the Paramount exists is to provide a space for community arts," said Paramount executive director Jennie Knoebel.

"He (Mariska) is really trying to bring jazz band back to Austin High."

The student ensembles will be joined by the Real Big Band, based out of Mankato. The group was established in 1998 and plays a wide variety of big band music, including songs by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, and Stan Kenton. The Real Big Band includes Austin resident and local band director Tim Davis, who plays the trumpet.

The plan is to make the jazz concert an annual event, bringing in a different act to accompany the students every year.


"We'd like to make it a bigger thing," said Mariska. "Bring in other pros, raise money for the program."

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