On Friday, March 16, when the Northeast was expected to be buried under the biggest snowstorm of the season, the Princeton High School Band and its determined director, Joseph B. Downey, departed at 7 a.m.—two hours earlier than originally planned—in the hopes of getting out ahead of the storm. Their destination? Boston and the Berklee College of Music High School Jazz Festival. This decision turned out to be a wise one, as another band from New Jersey that left around noon ended up on the road for 11 hours.
The next day, on March 17, the band won top honors at the festival with a high score of 293 out of 300 points and a rating of “outstanding.” The prestigious Berklee Festival is in its 39th year and is the largest festival of its kind in the country. More than 3,000 students from 221 bands competed in the event.
The Princeton Studio Band hadn’t competed at Berklee since the 1990s, under the direction at that time of its founder, the late Anthony Biancosino. From 2000 to 2006, between “Dr. B’s” failing health and his untimely death in 2003, followed by the ensuing years of transition as the band adapted to its new director, Dr. B’s brother, Joe Downey, Princeton High School stayed away from the Berklee competition. Not that some of the bands in the intervening years hadn’t been good enough, but this year, Downey was determined to take the Studio Band back to Berklee to prove that Princeton High was still among the best high school jazz bands in the country.
This was Downey’s second time at the Berklee Competition with the Princeton band. The first time was in 1982 when he was asked to fill in for his brother because Dr. B was in the hospital with his daughter, who was terminally ill. In commemoration of Dr. B and his daughter, Downey played the same three pieces this year that the band had taken first place with at that 1982 Berklee competition: Whiplash, Of Another Time, and Cherokee.
In addition to winning as the best band this time around, trumpet player Sam Smith, a senior at Princeton High School, received the Judges’ Choice Award for best trumpet soloist as well as an Outstanding Musicianship Award for trumpet for the entire Class III Large Ensemble Category. With the band’s first-place win comes a $10,000 prize that can be applied to partial-tuition scholarships applicable toward a Berklee Summer Music Program. The band will also have the opportunity to have a Berklee faculty member visit Princeton High School to conduct an educational clinic for Studio Band students.
The band, which is made up of students from both Cranbury and Princeton, has several more performances before the end of the season. There is a community swing dance at Princeton High School on Friday, April 13, the end-of-year Big Band Show in early June (the date has not yet been set) and a gala fundraising event to celebrate three decades of the Studio Band on Saturday, June 16.
Community Swing Dance, Friday, April 13, 7 to 10 p.m. Princeton High School Studio Band, Princeton High School, 151 Moore Street. Dance presented by the award-winning band. Refreshments available. $5. 609-497-0697. For more information on the band and its performances visit www.phsjazz.org.
Also, Gala 30th Anniversary Concert, Saturday, June 16, 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. Trego-Biancosino Auditorium, 151 Moore Street. The gala will feature current band members and alumni. Proceeds will go toward buying a new baby-grand piano for the band room at the high school.