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One of the top 15 jazz band orchestras in the u.s. calls beloit home

The Beloit Memorial high school jazz orchestra is a fixture at the nationwide competition

The school bell rings as students trickle into the expansive band room at Beloit Memorial High School (BMHS). Friends chat as they take their instruments out and begin to fill the rooms with melodic sounds. The daily practice is mixed with playing music, student feedback, and excitement. The practice is not just an elective for credit, as the students here are selected by audition. The practice is perfecting pieces to be played at the prestigious Essentially Ellington competition in New York City.  

Mr. Christopher Behrens, NBCT, is behind the musical magic at BMHS. He is the Band Director of the Wind Ensemble, Concert Band, Pep Band, and, of course, Jazz Band I/II and Jazz Combo I/II. He brings many years of experience to the table, as he started with the School District of Beloit in 1996 at Aldrich Middle School and has been at BMHS since 2001. He strives to teach students not only the craft of music, but also to learn life-long qualities that will positively impact their lives.

Students of the Beloit Memorial High School Jazz Orchestra take practice during their daily rehearsal time.

Although the goal for students in the Beloit Memorial Jazz Orchestra (BMJO) is to place at band competitions, including the Essentially Ellington competition, for Behrens, it is much more than that. Behrens aims for all his music students to learn to “have a voice that is valued and part of a much bigger whole, discover the importance of discipline, focus, and selflessness, discover that hard work pays off, and discover the sheer joy of making music with others.” Because of the fundamentals of studying music, it is essential to Behrens to know that what’s learned in the classroom can help personally with “self-confidence, both musically and personally, how to interact and communicate without words, how to manage their nerves, and how to deal with making mistakes and learn that being prepared isn’t always enough.” 

High school students start experimenting with music-making at Beloit’s Fruzen and Aldrich Middle Schools to get to this point in their music careers. Glenn Wilfong, whose roots run deep in the Beloit music scene, is the Director of Bands for both middle schools and plenty of other ensembles, symphonies, and orchestras. The district is unique in that locally it is the “only district that offers Band & Orchestra starting at the 5th-grade level,” as confirmed by Behrens, and he states that [he is] proud to say, “we have a strong music program within the School District of Beloit.”

According to Behrens, “Since 2018, the members of the BMJO [have led] a one-week summer jazz camp for middle school students called the Rock River Jazz Camp,” who may be interested in being part of the orchestra once approaching the start of high school. Current BMJO students conduct all the teaching and mentoring during the camp. The camp was quite successful during the summer of 2023, as they had 75 students, ranging from fifth to eighthgrade, attend.

2023 marks the eleventh invitation for the BMJO to the Essentially Ellington competition, and they seek tirelessly to make it there each year. The event is held at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City every May. They are patiently waiting for February to be here as the finalists, competition, and festival schedule are announced.

In the 2023 competition, the hard work and years of dedication paid off for many band members, as multiple students took home Essentially Ellington honors. While the desire to be named the best in the nation is strong, getting to the competition is no guarantee. With more than 100 entries from across the U.S., the final fifteen chosen can already be considered the best. The entries are selected blindly, with just their audio being played.

Driven by a passion for music and a desire to achieve greatness, the members of the BMJO have dedicated countless hours to perfecting their craft in the classroom. There is truly no better way to prepare for these competitions than to perform for the Beloit community. Behrens explains, “Our community loves to support our students – especially ones who are working hard, dedicated, and serious about their craft. The program has made a name for themselves within the community, state, and on a national level [he says], and I believe people take pride in that – as you would a successful area athletic team”.

The greater Beloit community is full of vibrant and exciting live music. No matter what day of the week, there are always musicians playing to pursue their passion for music. However, not often do you run across a group of young and talented students like the ones a part of the BMJO. Beloit is such a special place for performances, from the point of view of Behrens, because “[he believes] that the diversity of culture and unique mixture of people we have in the Stateline area allows not only Jazz to thrive, but all of the Arts to have a place.” He goes on to explain that “Between Janesville, Beloit, and Rockford – there is a wealth of live music being performed by people of all ages – and the BMHS Jazz program is just another part of that.”

Student participation serves as a source of immense pride for their school, community, and music educators, who have nurtured their talents and instilled in them the values of passion and dedication. Behrens agrees that “Music is an outlet, a home, a special place for so many students. Whether you are an athlete, an average student, an artist or a student with special needs – the music program has a place for you”.

BMJO 2023-2024 Schedule for upcoming performances:

Wednesday, December 13th at 6:00 pm | Grand Avenue Pub

Sunday, February 18th, time TBD | BMHS Cafeteria

Wednesday, March 13th at 6:00 pm | Grand Avenue Pub

Wednesday, April 17th at 6:00 pm | Grand Avenue Pub

Wednesday, May 29th at 6:00 pm | Grand Avenue Pub

BMJO Competition & Festival Results:

Essentially Ellington Finalist, Jazz@Lincoln Center, NYC

(Top Fifteen Bands from the United States/Canada selected by blind, recorded audition)

2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2019, 2020, 2022, 2023

2018 – Honorable Mention (4th Place)

Purdue University Jazz Festival, West Lafayette, IN

Top Three Finish:  (2nd or 3rd place out of 15) 

2006, 2010, 2012, 2016, 2020

1st Place – 2004, 2011, 2014, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2022, 2023

**BMJE (Jazz 2)  placed 1st at the Purdue University Jazz Festival in the

 2nd Bands Division; 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2022, 2023  

Jazz in the Meadows, Rolling Meadows, IL

Top Three Finishes: 2002, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2017, 2022

Grand Champions 2018, 2019, 2023 

UW-Platteville Jazz Festival 

1st Place 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017

Western Illinois Univ. Jazz Festival 

1st Place and Grand Champion:  2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2013

Festival Disney, Orlando, FL

1st Place and Grand Champion:  2007, 2011, 2015, 2019

UW-Eau-Clarie Jazz Festival

Top Three Finish: 2004, 2014

Bob Kames Jazz Festival, Milwaukee, WI

1st Place and Grand Champion 2010

Performed with Gordon Goodwin and His Phat Band

UW-Green Bay Jazz Festival 

1st Place 2007, 2008

Coe College Jazz Summit, Cedar Rapids, IA

1st Place 2015 

Carroll College Jazz Festival, Waukesha, WI 

1st Place 2006

Jazz notes hit the air as students practice ahead of their appearance at the Essentially Ellington competition.

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