With emphasis being placed on what’s new in Peoria, it can be easy to overlook the established talent. However, the Peoria Jazz All-Stars are truly remarkable. The All-Stars, currently under the direction of Bernie Potter, have been a showcase for the Peoria area’s most gifted high school musicians for the past 11 years.

The band was founded by Mary Jo Papich to provide an opportunity for outstanding young musicians to grow as jazz musicians in a big band setting, said Potter, who’s been with the group for three years. He also credited Business Manager Marcia Merriman, who’s has been with the group from its inception, for her role in the group’s development. "This prestigious group is an auditioned all-city big band comprised of students from the four public high schools: Manual, Peoria Central, Richwoods, and Woodruff. There are no age requirements; we’ve had students from seventh grade up to seniors. Interestingly, this particular version of the All-Stars is one of the youngest ever, with many freshmen and sophomores, but their performances this year have been outstanding."

The All-Stars’ list of performance accomplishments is extensive. "They performed at the 1996 North Sea Festival and Montreux Festival in Europe; in 1998 at the National Association of School Boards Convention in New Orleans; on the Big Red Boat in the Bahamas in 1999; at the Montreux Festival and Umbria Jazz Festival in 2000; in Branson in 2001; and Orlando in 2003, where they were the first group to be recorded in clinic sessions at the Disney Complex. Many of the student performers have also been selected as Outstanding Soloist/Performer at festivals throughout the state and Midwest," Potter said.

In fact, individual recognition recently hit home for a couple of the performers. "Two members of the Peoria Jazz All-Stars recently performed with the All-State Honors Jazz Band, the highest honor in jazz in the State of Illinois," Potter said. "Only 20 students are selected by auditions for this group from throughout the state. Anna Robinson, a trumpeter from Manual High School, and Rob Gould, a drummer from Richwoods High School, were selected, and it was the second year in a row for Anna. This is a tremendous individual achievement for these two outstanding performers, who provide incredible leadership in the All-Stars."

The group rehearses once a week and performs throughout the year at civic events, concerts, and jazz festivals. "There are definitely more offers to perform than we can ever hope to accommodate. Our students are integral parts of the music programs in their schools, as well as excellent students, athletes, and members of many other organizations, so we have to be very careful not to overextend their time commitment. We have some regular events we’ve been part of for years, and we balance that by trying to do a variety of different events each year."

Performance trips, especially those out of the country, require that sometimes-significant funds are raised. "The group raises money through their performances and some special fund raisers we do each year," he explained. "Most recently, we performed at the Madison Theater with the WIU Faculty Jazz Sextet. We do a Gala Concert and Silent Auction at the Gateway Building each spring and receive donations from supporters throughout the year."

Since assuming leadership of the Peoria Jazz All-Stars, Potter said the group has taken on slightly different musical styles than those played in the past, as every director’s tastes vary. "The group has also developed a heightened awareness of the history of jazz and the importance history has on their performance. In terms of music, we draw from a wide variety of styles, some of which weren’t originally intended for big band jazz, but have been arranged for that purpose. We’ve had some pieces written especially for us. There’s certainly an effort made to expose students and audiences alike to the jazz greats, so we play a lot of tunes by Ellington, Basie, Miles, Maynard, Rich, Sinatra, with some Tower of Power, R&B, movie music, and funk tunes thrown in for variety."

Though there have been minor changes, Potter said for the most part, the group has simply continued to do a wonderful job of keeping America’s jazz tradition in the forefront for its audiences.

Potter said some of the variables in music are affected by the different compositions of the group. "We have certain instrument shortages in given years. This year, we’re short on trombone players, and we’ve only just found a piano player. It seems this varies from year to year."

His ongoing job, Potter said, is to help his students learn and value a range of styles. "I hope they come away with a deep appreciation of the wonderful language of music, whatever the type, and an understanding of the very special cooperation and camaraderie that being a member of any musical organization requires. This is a unit where everyone is a soloist, as there’s no one else playing their part and all of us depend on each other for success. It’s a life lesson that will go with them and be applicable to many other situations in their life. In a world that’s very ’I’-oriented, this is a ’we’ type of activity, and these young people respond to it very well."

The lessons learned by the young members of the All-Stars apparently do stick with them. "Many of the All-Stars have continued to perform at the collegiate level at universities throughout the Midwest, and a few are playing professionally, such as Greg Ward and Doug Stone. Some are teaching music, including the Woodruff band director, Julie Traenkenschuh. I think it’s safe to say all of the former members of the group are avid supporters of music and regular members of the audience wherever jazz is available."

You can catch the Peoria Jazz All-Stars at 6 p.m., May 7, at the Gateway Gala Concert and Fundraiser; and May 28 at the Peoria County Courthouse for a performance with the Peoria Arts Festival. AA!