Record Number of GDS Students Compete at North Carolina Jazz Festivals

Junior Jamie Zimmermann playing guitar at UNC–Chapel Hill. Photo by Kaiden J. Yu.

GDS jazz students packed up their instruments and headed to North Carolina on Feb. 17 to perform in annual competitions at UNC–Chapel Hill and Elon University.

This year marked GDS’ seventh appearance at the back-to-back festivals and the school’s highest recorded attendance. In 2016, the first year GDS went, 12 students in two bands played at the festivals. This year, 44 students in seven bands attended. In 2021, Elon canceled the event because of COVID, but UNC–Chapel Hill held a modified version of its festival, which GDS took part in, over Zoom.

“Being cooped up at home on Zoom for two years, I think that’s why I have so many students going this year,” music teacher Brad Linde, who organized the trip, said. “Everyone is excited to get out on the road again.”

Senior Oakley Winters agreed. “Being able to go down to the performance is miles and miles better,” they said.

In preparation for the trip, students formed their own bands, chose (and in some cases wrote and composed) the songs they wanted to play and rehearsed independently.

“What it shows me is, how well did they digest the lessons that I’ve been teaching them?” Linde said.

In the competitions at both festivals, panels of judges assessed the students on sound, tuning, jazz conception, improvisation, collaboration, song selection and overall performance, according to Linde. The festivals each ended with awards ceremonies, where certificates were given to standout performers. 

Seven GDS students were named Outstanding Performers at UNC: juniors Kaiden Yu, Alexandra Caskin and Jaia Wilensky and seniors Ben Finkelstein, Harold Oppenheim, Jamie Lewis and Abby Kanter. Six more won Outstanding Soloist awards at Elon: freshmen Kenji Yokote and Isaac Seiken, sophomores Oliver Alfonso-Frank and William Liu and juniors Jacob Getlan and Alex Wood.

Linde described the trip as a bonding experience. “Band directors will come up to me and go, ‘I’ve never seen students having more fun playing together,’” he said.

“The fact of the matter is, all of us who are involved in the jazz program pour our heart and soul into it,” junior Jacob Getlan said.

Linde said the trip gives his students “ownership and pride over their accomplishments.”

“Being able to actually go down to the performance and play as a group,” Winters said, “is really unique. I love that GDS provides the opportunity for us to get some actual real experience and real feedback from judges. We definitely take that on and take it to our next performance.”

In addition to performing in the competitions, the students went to masterclasses with guest artists, heard college bands play, watched the UNC faculty play and went to local cafes and restaurants. Different guest artists come every year, giving students the opportunity to learn from experts.

“I learned about jazz composition and techniques through watching the UNC faculty perform,” senior Eli Faber said. “That’s most of what these trips are about: meeting people who are really good at jazz and watching them play.”

For Winters, the trip was an opportunity to relax with friends and focus on music. “You’re not distracted by other stuff—you get in this sphere of music,” they said. “You get to hear some great music, you get to play some great music, have fun, get feedback and just have a good time with your bandmates and classmates.”