Up to this point in their high school careers, many of the students in the Glenelg Jazz Ensemble have followed a musical path strikingly similar to that of accomplished jazz trumpeter Alex Pope Norris.
Tonight, they will experience firsthand just where that familiar path can lead, when Norris returns to Howard County as guest soloist for the ensemble's benefit concert under the direction of Barry Enzman, Glenelg High School's director of bands, at 7:30 p.m. in the school auditorium.
Norris, 39, took up the trumpet at what was then Dasher Green Elementary School, stuck with it at Owen Brown Middle School and continued to play at Hammond High.
"I guess I showed an aptitude for improvisation," Norris said in a telephone interview from the University of Miami, where he is an adjunct professor of jazz while pursuing a doctorate in music.
Norris, who earned a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory to study classical trumpet and went on to earn a master's degree in jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, clearly does not like to toot his horn in a verbal sense. But a quick listen to an audio clip from the Alex Norris Quintet on his Web site (www.alexnorris.com) makes it clear that Norris has aptitude aplenty.
"Music really starts in the household, with your family," Norris said. "I was always interested in jazz, and I had a few records - Fletcher Henderson, Maynard Ferguson. There was something about that high-energy music.
"I gravitated toward Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis," he said. "I liked swing jazz, and over time I just liked the jazz rhythm section. I was hooked on the sound of acoustic jazz. Now I'm passionate about it."
Norris' interest in jazz continued to develop at Peabody, when he began playing with a local jazz group called the Rumba Club.
"That was my school away from school," said Norris, who would study at Peabody during the day and play Latin jazz at night.
"Baltimore has a great legacy with jazz and R&B;, classical and gospel. But it doesn't have a legacy of Latin music," said Norris, who graduated from Peabody in 1990.
Norris liked the multilayered rhythms going on all at once, and now he is working on a thesis with a Latin jazz topic, studying the Fort Apache Band, an influential group that has been important in the history of the genre.
Norris has toured with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and worked with such legendary performers as Lonnie Plaxico, Betty Carter, Andy and Jerry Gonzales, "Patato" Valdez, the Mingus Dynasty Big Band, Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra.
He is a composer and arranger as well as performer, and is featured on more than 60 compact discs as a sideman, as well as a leader on the Alex Norris Quintet CD, A New Beginning. He plans to move to New York and continue his career after finishing his doctorate, yet he remains self-effacing about his accomplishments.
"When I think of the people I am studying, I think I'm a real infant next to them," he said.
Many of the Glenelg Jazz Ensemble members can relate to that feeling - only Norris is the one to whom they are comparing themselves.
"I'm a trumpet player," said Afton Vechery, 17, a senior in the ensemble, "so I'm especially excited about his visit."
Andy Sotak, 17, also is a senior trumpet player in the group. "I listened to him [Norris], and it was impressive," he said. "I really enjoy the improv, hearing the musicians' thoughts through their notes."
Listening is key to performing jazz - or any type of music, for that matter. Sophomore tenor saxophone player Stephen Fasteau, 16, said, "Mr. Enzman tells us to listen, listen, listen. The more you do it, the more ideas you can get. Sometimes he plays something for us that shows us where we need to be - then he shows us how to get there."
No doubt Norris' performance will do both.
"I expect they will get as much out of the rehearsal as the actual performance," said Enzman. "Each [guest artist] is a little different. Some like to interact with the kids, some just set up the stand and look to me to give the count. I think he [Norris] is going to mix it up."
Enzman should know. Norris first met Enzman when he was selected from Hammond High School for the All-County Jazz Band under Enzman's direction. Norris returned to student-teach under Enzman while getting his undergraduate degree in music education at Peabody.
"I learned so much from him," said Norris. "How to be organized, how to develop a program, how to handle students in an ethical way.
"He has a great program. He's had it for years. He's got great parent support."
Afton Vechery's experience illustrates that support. "Ever since I can remember," she said, "my parents have been bringing me to Glenelg [Jazz Ensemble] concerts. It was my dream to be in it."
Norris and Enzman have kept in touch over the years, running into each other at the International Association of Jazz Education annual conference. Enzman, 55, recently asked Norris to solo with the Glenelg Jazz Ensemble, which is raising funds for a tour this summer in Europe to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland as well as the Jazz A Vienne and Jazz A Juan in France.
"He asked me, and I was not going to say no to him," said Norris. "He is an important person to me."
The Glenelg Jazz Ensemble performs at 7:30 tonight in the Glenelg High School auditorium, 14025 Burntwoods Road, Glenelg. Tickets are $10, and can be purchased at the door or through the school's front office. 410-313-5528.
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