The Sopris Sun

How Roaring Fork became a school of jazz

By Trina Ortega
Special to The Sopris Sun


Mark Gray sits on a stool in front of roughly 30 students whose chairs form an arc filling the band room at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS). Behind him is a whiteboard with the lines of a musical staff imprinted on one portion alongside handwritten calendar dates denoting “Battle of the Bands,” a May 31 dinner, and the school’s graduation — remaining dates of the band’s concerts.

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Gray is directing the students in a piece titled “Pulsation,” and he gets the rhythm going by describing a train coming down the tracks, “ch ch ch ch, ch ch ch ch….” The students follow his lead and mouth out the beat before he counts and they play. Clarinets, flutes, alto and tenor saxophones, trumpets, tuba, standup bass, timpani, xylophone and more fall into sync.

Then he drops his arms, shakes his head and the tune fizzles out. He carries the metaphor further, describing how the train rolled off the tracks, ripped through the town, and took out three young children. The students laugh. They knew it, too; they lost rhythm. They were all speaking the same language.

It’s one example demonstrating the all-encompassing subject of music.

“The basis of it is that every other subject is covered in music class. You can learn everything through learning music. I tell my middle school kids, ‘If music was the only class you had, you’d be ready for high school,’” Gray says. “You do math; there’s a science involved; you read a foreign language; and it’s the ultimate crew class — building community and building relationships.”

A handful of RFHS students have reaped those benefits and want more. Along with their parents, they have worked with RFHS and Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS) to add a new course, Advanced Music, to the RFHS curriculum in Fall 2017.

Currently, RFHS offers one music class — concert band — as an elective. Gray, the band director for both RFHS and Carbondale Middle School (CMS), says the new class came about because some of the students simply wanted to play more jazz.

“Some of the kids have been playing together for four or five years. It was a group that started meeting during their flex hour [free period] in middle school… They realized they’re not going to be able to play jazz unless it was in a smaller group after school,” Gray says. “The fact that they wanted to get together after school, on their own time says a lot.”

That group now makes up the RFHS Jazz Band, which meets every Wednesday after school under the directorship of Mark Johnson. JAS has funded Johnson in that role and will continue to support his position to teach the new class, which will offer students a college-level music experience, according to Johnson.

“I’m not one to go easy on expectations,” Johnson says. “I believe that given the opportunity and guidance, these kids can achieve way beyond what they think they can. It just takes desire and effort.”

The Jazz Band — all sophomores and freshman — has played gigs at La’ Hostaria in Aspen, Carbondale Chamber of Commerce After Hours, Lions Club Chili Cook-off in Glenwood Springs, and in March  opened for internationally known Etienne Charles at an Aspen JAS Café. Several of the students have made the District 8 Honors Band in past years and have traveled to the University of Northern Colorado/Greeley Jazz Festival for critiques from professors and musicians.

Sophomore Liam Laird says he is excited for the new class at RFHS, which will increase the Jazz Band’s rehearsal time from just once a week to three times per week.

“We’ve got such a nice after-school thing with Mark Johnson,” Laird said of the Jazz Band, which carries no classroom credits for the students. “It’s hard to play all this really fun, interesting, challenging music in Jazz Band and then go into the larger concert band class where there are a lot of different skill levels.”

Laird, who recently was accepted into the competitive Berklee College of Music Summer Program in Boston, said he’s looking forward to the more rigorous music class at RFHS, and he thinks the band will improve with the extra hours of practice.

Tyler Treadway, a sophomore, says playing in the band has been important on a social level as well.

“I’ve been so lucky to have been in Honors Band and Jazz Band with all those kids who are serious about music,” Treadway says. “People think I want to be alone, but I don’t. I enjoy hanging out with my band mates. On days when I have music, I don’t want rehearsal to end.”

Treadway says music is also a stress reliever, and when it comes to creativity, the possibilities “are endless.”

“It keeps me working hard and focused. It keeps me occupied, which might be bad because I neglect all the other things I’m supposed to be doing. But music is amazing.”

JAS Senior Vice President Andrea Beard says JAS evolves its music education initiatives to fit the needs of the valley’s students.

“Whether it be instrument donations, private lessons, classroom assistance for instructors, we continually evaluate our programs to make sure we are offering the most beneficial opportunities for local music students and teachers,” she says. “Seeing the dedication, talent and desire that the students at Roaring Fork High School have put into their part-time studies of jazz, it was a no-brainer for us to want to help them advance those studies.”

To help raise funding for the new class and other music education initiatives, parents and students are organizing the Carbondale Student JAS Bistro Dessert Buffet from 6:30-8 p.m. May 31 at the RFHS Auditeria. The evening will feature live music from the Carbondale Middle School and RFHS concert bands, RFHS Jazz Band, and Sir Isaac & the White Noise. Homemade desserts and sweets donated by local restaurants will be for sale. The cost is $5 per person. Tickets available at the door. For more information, email jasbistro@gmail.com.