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Downs Jazz Festival time-out strikes sour note

Popular music fest a treasure for local educators

Posted: January 17, 2009 9:16 p.m.
Updated: January 18, 2009 4:59 a.m.

The COC Studio Jazz Ensemble swings at the Feb. 11, 2005 R.K. Downs Jazz Festival on the main stage at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center at College of the Canyons.

College of the Canyons arts administrators' decision Monday to pull the plug on what would have been the 34th R.K. Downs Jazz Festival Feb. 21 hit a dissonant note with local high school and college music educators and musicians.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Robin Smith, a saxophonist and musician who has played for nearly two decades with the COC Studio Jazz Ensemble, the college music department's big band, in the Music 153 class.

"The other band members I have spoken with are also very disappointed," said Smith, who has also served as president, secretary and promoter-publicist for the ensemble.

"I thought that every effort would be made to continue this festival since it is a service to all the high-school students in the community as well as promotional for the college for all of California, as well as neighboring states," she said.

The Downs festival gathers Santa Clarita Valley high school jazz groups invited by the department and the big band to perform for audiences of fans, families and friends on the big Performing Arts Center stage.

Noted music instructor Robert K. Downs, a veteran of music programs in the U.S. Army and Hart High School, was the COC music department's first chief, and founded the festival in the mid-1970s.

Floyd A. Moos, COC's dean of fine and performing arts, cancelled what would have been the 34th festival.

On Tuesday, he cited scheduling issues that meant the Studio Jazz Ensemble would not have enough time to rehearse.

Moos also noted that in the face of rising student interest, a growing music program, and uncertainty about the state budget, the school was being financially conservative and would save money, but he was unsure how much. He emphasized, however, that the festival would resume February 2010.

After Downs retired, Dirk Fischer headed the music department and conducted the Studio Jazz Ensemble for the next 27 years, through the end of 2004, when he in turn passed the baton to KC Manji. As instructor of Music 153, she also assumed the role of Downs Festival music director.

When contacted by The Signal for comment about the cancellation, Manji referred a reporter to Dr. Moos and the COC public relations office.

"If (lack of rehearsal) is the only reason, a rehearsal hall should be open to them," Fischer said, adding that they'd also need to pay a teacher.

"That's actually the consideration. Other schools don't seem to have that problem," Fischer said. "The rehearsal hall is open in the middle of the night ... if the band director wants to rehearse. There are people there whose scope is not wide enough."

The Downs festival is an event school jazz bands prepare for as part of their music programs each year. Among the groups to be invited this year was the group from West Ranch High School.

"This really shows how little regard COC has for the tradition/state of music education in this valley," said Robert Babko, now in his second year as director of jazz studies at West Ranch, and a Downs Festival participant for more than a decade.

Babko was the band director at Valencia High School for 13 years, has taught in the SCV since 1969 and knew Downs.

"It shows how little appreciation (COC has) for the first music teacher at COC and the person who set the standard for the quality of instrumental music to which the high schools in our valley should aspire," Babko said.


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