Dan Puckett, a junior at Glenelg High School, has been playing tenor saxophone since he was in fourth grade. But he didn't get serious about his music until the following year, when he saw the renowned Glenelg Jazz Ensemble perform.
He knew he wanted to be part of the band. And that meant he would have to be good.
Puckett, who also plays the flute, has achieved his goal. He is one of 21 members of the elite ensemble, which has won countless awards and has been featured in jazz festivals around the world.
On Sunday, the Glenelg Jazz Ensemble is getting together for the last time this school year to give an hourlong performance during LakeFest, the free and open-to-the-public component of the annual Columbia Festival of the Arts.
The band is scheduled to play at 6 p.m. at Lake Kittamaqundi with guest Carl Filipiak, a well-known local jazz guitarist with many albums to his name, including Looking Forward, Looking Back and Electric Thoughts.
"We're just playing some jazz, some swing, some rock, some funk, some blues, a little bit of everything under the umbrella of jazz," said Barry Enzman, who has been director of the Jazz Ensemble and other Glenelg music programs for 30 years.
The high school students will take their place in a lineup of local, regional and national talents who will perform from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday while LakeFest patrons take part in such activities as juggling lessons, a painting workshop and a chalk-drawing contest.
They are the only students on the roster. Other artists scheduled to perform include the Junkyard Saints, Alma and Niurka, the Thrillbillies. the Pietasters and One World Tribe.
Members of the Glenelg Jazz Ensemble are used to sharing the spotlight with heavyweights. Over the years, the students have attended seven major jazz festivals outside this country, including the Montreux International Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland; the North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Haag, Holland; the Jazz a Vienne in Lyon, France; and the World Jazz Festival in Freiburg, Germany.
These are not typical venues for high school bands, to put it mildly. "The band has a really good reputation," said Matt Brenneman, a junior who plays trumpet and has been with the group since his freshman year.
"Generally, the festivals ... are all professional groups," Enzman said. "It's quite an extensive audition process and screening process for you to participate in it. They expect a certain level."
He starts the qualification process by sending tapes of the students performing. Then, festival representatives will come and hear the band in person. "Once you establish yourself in there, and they know that you're reputable, you can just send in a CD."
Enzman goes to the trouble because he believes in the young musicians. "You just start out from the premise that you want to make it the best group you possibly can and the other stuff happens as a result," he said. "It's a byproduct of always stressing excellence."
Trips to Europe don't take place every year, but when they occur they are such a treat that even seniors who have graduated return to participate, Enzman said. No European tour is planned this year, but five graduates will join the ensemble for LakeFest, Enzman said.
The jazz group has performed at LakeFest in the past, but doesn't do so every year, he said. "Sometimes it's difficult because we're really extending beyond the school year for the seniors," he said.
Students who qualify for the band know that they have attained a high level of musical prowess. Auditions are held every fall, even for students who made it the previous year, and typically just as many students are rejected as accepted.
The students who make the cut generally rehearse twice a week, for two hours at a time. And nearly all of them are also in the school's symphonic band, which meets as a class every school day.
Junior Stacey Kight, who plays the alto saxophone, has been an ensemble member since her sophomore year. Like other members, some of whom take private lessons or attend music camps, she works to keep her skills sharp, even over the summer. Playing with the Jazz Ensemble had been her goal for years, she said, and "I realized I had to work really hard if that's what I wanted to do."