On a recent afternoon, as Princeton High School jazz band director Joe Bongiovi walks through the school’s state of the art performing arts annex, the sounds of the Sonny Rollins calypso standard “St. Thomas,” with its involved, happy melody and syncopated rhythm, follow him. One of the six bands he oversees at PHS — one for younger, less experienced musicians — is cutting its collective teeth on the Rollins song.
The burly bandmaster believes strongly that music is important in the lives of students, and that a good education in the arts will always help in every aspect of life, both in and outside the classroom. In an age, however, when school districts are cutting down on or even eliminating music programs, the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra Jazz Week, a series of two non-consecutive weeks of summer camp Bongiovi runs at Princeton High, helps keep young jazzers engaged. The first week takes place in late June or early July, the second in August.
Open to musicians from middle school to high school (6th through 12th grades), the camps welcome players of all abilities and experience. And there are a lot of players. Last year, each weekly session cost $400, with admission to both sessions $650. Bongiovi says that each session of Jazz Week, operated independently of each other, has about 60 youth participating.
After noticing that his students were sliding back during the summer because they weren’t practicing their instruments, Bongiovi established the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra (PJO) in 2003 for high school and college musicians without a creative outlet during the summer. The PJO performs in Burlington at the Lyceum Hall Center for the Arts, in Philadelphia at Chris’s Jazz Cafe, and each August, at the Kennedy Center’s program of free summer concerts. They have also played abroad.
“The bridge for us is good music programs in the public schools,” says Bongiovi in an interview squeezed in between meetings and rehearsals for the Princeton High School Jazz Festival, which took place February 12 and 13, and featured master classes and performances by renowned jazz trumpeters Tim Hagans, a 2011 Grammy nominee, and Marvin Stamm.
Bongiovi has been teaching at Princeton High since 2007. Before that he taught at Neshaminy High, Steinert High, and Levitt Middle School in Willingboro, and Nottingham High, where he served as a student teacher. When he came to Princeton, Bongiovi, just a tad past his 30th birthday, had some big shoes to fill. The two studio jazz band leaders who preceded him, Anthony Biancosino and then his brother, Joe Downey, both led the band to first place finishes in national competitions at Berklee School of Music. But Bongiovi arrived with his own calling card: the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra.
Bongiovi recognizes the exemplary music instruction available to students in this area during the school year. “We live in an area where there are excellent programs. Princeton has an excellent one. West Windsor-Plainsboro has an excellent one. Montgomery has an excellent one. When you go into Pennsylvania, Pennsbury, Neshaminy, Council Rock, all have excellent programs.” But summer can leave a big hole in a budding musician’s progress.
He says he saw kids who were turned on to jazz but had no summer programs to keep them engaged. “So what we did was get the kids together in the summer and rehearse once a week. We brought them down to University of the Arts (in Philadelphia, where Bongiovi earned a master’s in music education in 2003) and rehearsed.”
The PJO didn’t expect to play any shows but they ended up with a gig at a Pizza Hut and one at a nursing home. “It was never meant to be what it turned out to be. It’s turned into something entirely different.”
And that is how the PJO Jazz Week summer camp came into being. After Bongiovi had moved to Princeton High, he was approached by the school district, which was looking for summer and community activities to be based at its new Performing Arts Center. By that time, the PJO had been working consistently to the point that they had even been going to Europe to perform during the summer.
One former camper and PJO member, Josh Rose of West Windsor, now a junior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, attended the camp for two years. He planned on returning to camp for a third year, only to be thrown the best kind of curve ball. The PJO reached out to Josh, and asked him to play with them on a 10-day summer concert tour of Italy, including locations in Florence, Rome, and Tuscany. “The crowds were fantastic,” says Josh. “Whole towns would come and watch us. To tour and feel what it’s really like to be a part of a professional group was incredible.”
He says the immersion experience of the camp was key to keeping him on top of his game. “It’s a hands-on experience with lots of clinicians and in-depth teachers. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I like to work hard and focus on really working on one thing, which isn’t always easy when you’re pulled in different dirctions in the course of a school year.” He says that the culture of dedication and practice at the camp sets its students up for success. (Among the camp alumni are the two sons of U.S. 1 editor Richard K. Rein.)
Bongiovi says: “The goal of the PJO had been educational, but we had gotten to the point that these players had gone past the original standard. The idea had been to catch kids just as they began to turn on and keep them playing, and that’s where we came up with the concept of the camp.”
A typical day at the camp, which runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., features a large ensemble rehearsal and theory/ear training in the morning, and after lunch, a master class/performance, history of jazz lectures and videos, small group lessons, sectionals for the large ensemble, an afternoon break, and another large ensemble rehearsal.
As a parent you might wonder how Bongiovi gets kids, well, jazzed about jazz, when mostly they want to listen to rock or techno. Bongiovi says kids do connect to jazz through rock. Case in point: Jason Mraz, Dave Matthews, and a lot of other pop artists have horn sections or arrangements that hearken back to jazz.
For the jazz camp, Bongiovi pulls all his well-connected strings. Faculty members or clinicians have included luminaries such as guitarist Vic Juris, saxophonist Denis DiBlasio, trumpeter George Rabbai, and guitarist Jimmy Bruno. “When you’re playing with someone who’s that good, it really inspires you to be better,” says former camper Josh Rose. Many of the guest artists stay after the clinic and jam with the students.
Bongiovi also brings in PJO alumni. “We’re now at the point where kids who have been involved with us are now out of college and are now teachers,” he says. “It’s really neat to see how many kids from PJO have gone into music as a career, become teachers, become working professionals.”
Two alumni of PJO programs who have returned to teach at the PJO summer camp are saxophonist Dave Pollack, now a music teacher and jazz band director at the Lawrenceville School, and Nick Ciardelli, a trumpeter who is working on his master’s degree while teaching at West Chester University and is doing steady gigs in the Philadelphia/New Jersey/New York area. Both musicians have done stints with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band.
Both musicians treasure the relationship they have had with Bongiovi and his musical endeavors. “He had been my student teacher when I was in high school,” says Pollack. “We stayed in touch, and eventually he asked me if I wanted to teach at the camp. I also teach a lot of his students as a private teacher.”
Why did Pollack go into teaching? “I always had a good experience with all of my teachers, and I just wanted to bring that same feeling to the younger players,” says Pollack, who was also guest soloist with the PJO at the jazz camp last year. “It’s cool that I came up as Bongiovi’s student, but now I am teaching as a peer with him.”
Bongiovi is hoping that the same progression occurs with the youth from the PJO camp. “Sometimes the camp kids end up becoming PJO players. We haven’t yet come into the situation where the camp kids become PJO players who then become teachers and pros, but we know that will happen. We’ll eventually get there.”
The camp “is sort of a breeding ground for PJO,” says Bongiovi. “The camp kids open for the PJO, and they really look up to them.”
Bongiovi was born in Indiana, PA, where his father, a chef by trade who became a hotel executive later in life, worked for a hotel chain. His mother was a healthcare administrator. They raised four children and moved around a bit; Bongiovi was his parents’ only son, born after three daughters. “I was way down the road,” he says. “My oldest sister was 12 years older than I was, and the youngest was 8 years older than I was.”
It was this generation gap, however, that got Bongiovi engaged in music to a degree that his older sisters could not. When he was 11 years old, after 12 moves, the family settled in Levittown. “It was different (for me) from the rest of my family. When my sisters were in high school, they were in a rural setting. There was nothing for them to do. They studied or they went out and tipped cows or something. But for me, growing up closer to Philadelphia, there were more opportunities. Maynard (Ferguson) could be playing at the Keswick Theater, or any number of other people. I was exposed to so many more things than they had been.”
He graduated from Neshaminy High, where he played tuba in the marching band, and then went to Berklee College of Music, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in film scoring, a skill he still uses today. He says he really does not know how he ended up as a jazz player, or someone who is associated with jazz. He played piano and low brass but did not really play jazz until late in his teens. He was able to get into Penn State and play with its famous Blue Band. “I had the time of my life. I really loved it there, but I didn’t learn a thing.” It was only after Berklee that he begun to really understand jazz.
Bongiovi, 34, lives in Chesterfield with his wife, Denise, and their three children. His daughter, Caitlyn, a sophomore at Princeton High, actually sidled up to her dad’s office as he was being interviewed and waved to him, though she isn’t part of the jazz bands at school. Bongiovi also has two younger children, Sebastian, 3, and Madelyn, 1.
As for the daily routine of the camp, Bongiovi says, “The first thing everyone does when they come in here is sit down and wait for instructions. Of course, there is the discipline of unpacking your instrument correctly and following directions, but more specifically, there is a discipline and an order to the music.”
Each musician is evaluated for skill level on the first day of the program. “We don’t call it an audition because we don’t want any of the kids to feel nervous or discouraged,” says Bongiovi. Then comes the learning. “Right off the bat we teach sight-reading skills, and then we teach reading, articulations, tone, rhythm. They work on scales, chord progressions, improvisation, soloing. We do a little bit of everything.”
Each Jazz Week culminates in a concert, usually held the last Friday night of the week. The bands play in front of their parents and anyone else who would like to come, and the groups are joined by faculty or special clinicians.
Bongiovi also encourages campers to listen to as much jazz as they can get their hands on. “If you want to sound like Miles Davis, you have to listen to Miles Davis. That’s what it means to work on being a better player. I always tell the players that it’s like playing tennis. The only way you’re going to get better is to find people who are playing above your level and find out what they are doing, to listen critically to what they are doing.”
How does he know if the kids are getting it? “The only thing we can go on is how they sound,” Bongiovi says.
Now, about that question that Bongiovi gets all the time: Are you related to Jon Bon Jovi (which was originally Bongiovi)? “Yes, I do get that question all the time, and yes, we are related. I believe we are third cousins,” the bandleader says. What is interesting, he adds, is that as he has traced his heritage to Sicily, he has found out that many of his ancestors, and living cousins, are musicians.
“I remember Jon was opening up for the Scorpions back in 1983 or ‘84 in Binghamton, New York. He really was kind of obscure, nobody knew him back then,” says Bongiovi of his cousin. At the show, Bongiovi’s sister had contacted the budding rocker and mentioned a possible familial connection. Jon Bon Jovi invited the family backstage. “He was so nice to us,” says Joe Bongiovi. To this day, Joe and his family are always welcome at Bon Jovi shows.
Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra Jazz Week, Princeton High School, Walnut Lane. Two one-week programs, featuring small group instruction, ensemble work, jazz history, theory/ear training, performance opportunities, and master classes and performances by guest artists and instructors. Founder and director: Joe Bongiovi. $400 for one week; $650 for two. For more information visit www.philadelphiajazzorchestra.com/pjo_jazz_week.