Pat Donaher has been directing the Jazz Combo group at Lexington High School for the last 10 years and shares his perspective and plans for the group as the student musicians begin the Combo’s 40th anniversary season.
AO: Mr. Donaher, can you tell us a bit about Jazz Combo and how it came to be?
PD: The LHS Jazz Combo was founded by Jeff Leonard 40 years ago. He crafted a jazz improvisation curriculum that has been a model for many other school districts. He created two levels of jazz improvisation classes, beginner and intermediate, then the Combo as an honors ensemble. (Much like the band, orchestra and choral programs).
He felt (and we still feel) that teaching improvisation is a remarkable way of building students’ musicianship, self-expression, and ability to work in community. I and the other teachers who have run the Combo since then have tried to keep that idea at the forefront of our work. Jeff Leonard really laid the foundation for the curriculum and the overall Combo experience — we try to remain true to his vision today.
AO: What lessons stand out to you in your teaching of this group?
PD: One thing that I love about the curriculum is that every spring we do a “deep dive” into one great jazz composer — this year it’s Thelonious Monk. It lets the students dig deep into a unique voice in the music, which we hope helps them start to discover their voice. We also spend a lot of time with the music of Charles Mingus, a great and under-appreciated jazz composer.
AO: As a member of Combo, it’s been so amazing to be able to have the opportunity to work with professional musicians. Can you share more about some of the artists that have shared their talents with Combo over the years?
PD: One thing all of us here in the LHS Performing Arts Department believe is that one of the best ways to learn is to work with the best musicians we can find. To that end, and with the support of our FOLMADS booster group, every year the Combo works with a top jazz musician. Those have included Makato Ozone, Dave Pietro, Luis Bonilla, Allison Miller, Jason Palmer, Jiggs Whigham, and many more. This year we are pleased to welcome back trombonist and vocalist Natalie Cressman, whose performance in 2020 was canceled by the pandemic.
AO: How has Jazz Combo been recognized over the years, what awards and achievements are most notable?
PD: The Combo has racked up a formidable record of achievement. The band has won the Downbeat Student Music awards, and several members of the Combo have received individual soloist and composer Downbeat awards. The band has been invited to the Charles Mingus Jazz Festival ten times, and won the Best Combo award three times. They’ve performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and the Monterey Festival in California. They’ve twice performed at the Jazz Educators Network conference, and that’s not even mentioning local and regional festival honors, etc.
AO: What do you enjoy most about directing the group, what are you the most excited about this year?
PD: I think the most exciting part is watching each group grow, both individually and collectively. Every year the band has a different personality, so I’m never teaching the same thing twice.
As far as this year, there’s a lot in the works. We’re very excited to be playing on the Charles River Esplanade on October 7 as the only high school student group in the Celebrity Series of Boston’s Jazz Along the Charles event. It’s a very ambitious program of 16 female composers with Boston ties, some of whom will also be playing at the event. In terms of the band, it’s a fun group of students, and I’m excited to see them grow into the challenges that this music presents.
AO: Are there special plans to celebrate Jazz Combo’s 40th anniversary year?
PD: Yes! We are in the early stages of planning a big anniversary concert and reunion in the spring. Details coming soon!
The LHS Jazz Combo kicks-off their 40th anniversary season this Saturday, Sept. 30, at Lexington’s inaugural Porchfest. They’ll be playing from 1-3:30 pm at 44 Percy Road. For Porchfest maps and schedules go to https://lexingtonporchfest.org/