In most artistic endeavors, there’s a fine line between art that’s merely a product of necessity and art that extends from the innermost reaches of the soul. For competitive young musicians, such subtleties amount to the difference between widespread renown and a long bus ride home.
Friday at 7 p.m.
Tickets from $7
In his documentary “CHOPS,” University alum and debut film director Bruce Broder explores the intricacies of jazz performance with an intimate look into three public schools in different parts of the country. The film follows each school’s jazz band as its members rehearse a rigorous repertoire for a competition in New York City.
One may be tempted to chuckle at the thought of such an undertaking — many college students share embarrassing memories of sub-par high school music departments, forever doomed to fumble through their umpteenth rendition of the “Star Wars” theme song as musicianship is continually forgone in favor of sports funding. Fortunately, Broder’s subjects occupy a young elite who are privileged enough to attend public schools that place a disproportionate emphasis on music over sports.
While watching the film, one begins to see distinct similarities between the camaraderie of these musicians and the fraternity one might observe on a competitive sports team. Broder saw this similitude, but also saw that the media has been spotlighting one group vastly over the other and wanted to shrink the gap.
“The primary draw of this concept was the fact that very few documentarians bother with the subject of high school jazz bands,” Broder said. “Sportsmen are frequently the subjects of documentaries and mass media, so it was a great opportunity to share these kids’ unsung musical passions with the world.”
Broder also wanted to show off just how talented these young musicians are. The technical skill and affinity for perfectionism that these tight-knit groups of teenage jazz enthusiasts share rival the talent normally expected of veteran musicians twice their age.
“What these kids have is a pure love of music, a love of performance,” Broder said.
Pure doesn’t even begin to describe it. The documentary’s introduction clearly demonstrates the hard work each student invests in his or her craft. They’re surprisingly humble in spite of their abundant talent, and equally unrelenting in their endeavors to win the competition.
“As a band parent myself, I followed these kids from middle school through high school, and in middle school they all shared an incredible degree of commitment to the music,” Broder said. “I thought it would be interesting to examine what happens to that passion and that love after the kids enter high school and are met with all sorts of distractions and various other interests.”
Though the film’s scope encompasses three individual schools and their bands, its primary focus is the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Fla. These pupils strive for a coveted spot in the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
The competition is named after the great Duke Ellington, who is widely considered to be the father of modern jazz music. Only 15 bands make the cut for the competition each year, so there is very little room for error. Perks of acceptance include several formal dinners, a community jam session, club gigs in the New York area and the honor of standing alongside Artistic Director of Jazz at the Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis, a nine-time Grammy Award winner and the first winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Music for a jazz composition.
Because making the competition comes with so much prestige, the students are undoubtedly under a lot of pressure. To cope with the stress and form a stronger contender, the band must become more than a group of talented individuals, but a cohesive, driven unit.
This exhibits itself in a particularly poignant moment in the film, just before the students of Douglas Anderson take the stage, when they gather for a moment to pray over their performance. Regardless of whether you believe in religious ideas, faith can be certainly seen as a consolidating and powerful force.
“It was particularly meaningful in that it united them for a brief while,” Broder said.
The students also come together in spite of one of history’s most common dividers: race. One third of the students at the Douglas Anderson School represent some minority, but the students see past these exterior differences. They are all bandmates, and that’s what matters.
“One thing my good friend noted after watching the movie was that there was very little of the animosity one expects between students of various ethnicities,” Broder said. “They are truly color-blind in their conduct toward one another by treating their peers as tantamount to their own family.”
“CHOPS” will be shown at the Michigan Theater this Friday at 7 p.m. Broder will be present before the film for a brief introduction and afterward for a question-and-answer session. “CHOPS” has won several awards including the Jury Award for Best Documentary at the Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, in addition to receiving positive reviews from the Baltimore Sun and CNN — rightly so. It gives attention to an underexposed group and highlights the camaraderie and talent of a group of students who have overcome barriers that many adults still struggle to see past.