When Zachary Van Meter and his fellow bandmates were coming up with a name for their student-led jazz combo, it proved harder than they expected.
Suggestions from the various members included Groovy Gang, Jazzpocalypse and Broken Pencils.
“Our bass player is an amazing player, but he’s not the best at coming up with names,” Van Meter laughed in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic.
Eventually, the Mitchell-based group settled on the name TriTones, a reference to a musical interval prominent in jazz music. The group has been playing under that name ever since while bringing their jazz stylings to crowds at various events throughout the Mitchell community.
Van Meter, a homeschooled junior who serves as the main bandleader for the group, said the outfit assembled out of the school jazz band as a way to continue playing music and stave off boredom over the summer. In addition to Van Meter, who plays trumpet, the TriTones are made up of Jesse Dodd on drums, Aiden Beckstrom on bass, Drex Martinek on trombone, Christian Kremer on tenor saxophone, Levi Gephard on alto saxophone, James Payne on trombone, Maddi Gerlach on piano and Ella Mutziger on guitar.
“We were all in jazz band in eighth grade. And except for Jesse, we’re not great musicians and we all wanted to get better,” Van Meter said. “When we first started, it was over the summer and jazz band wasn’t going, and we were all bored because we weren’t playing music. We wanted something to do.”
The group came together and began practicing their craft, developing a sound that incorporated American jazz classics by the likes of Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington as well as jazz arrangements of other non-jazz numbers, including Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes and Africa by Toto.
Playing jazz was a natural progression from their time in jazz band, as the form of music is perfect for players who are interested in learning and studying improvisation.
“The big thing is freedom of expression. You can improvise. You can take liberties in the melody and other amazing stuff that you don’t get in a concert band setting or other genres. Jazz encompasses a lot more than people think,” Van Meter said.
The group gathers as much as three times a week at the Mitchell High School band room to practice, although he admits their student schedules can occasionally clash with their practice times. They work to maintain social distancing and use the playable masks and bell covers that are required at school property.
It’s at these practices when they work on their sound and the art of playing together as a unit, something that develops over time and grows with a familiarity of a musician’s fellow players. Even for dedicated students, learning the ins and outs of jazz music can be a challenge.
“I wouldn’t say it comes naturally, per se, but everyone has that freedom in that we feel comfortable with each other to play stuff like that. It comes with practice and having a setting of acceptance with others who are in the same boat,” Van Meter said.
The band is totally student-led with the occasional help of teachers at Mitchell High School and Dakota Wesleyan University. Ryan Stahle, who directs band at Mitchell High School and Bethany Amundson, an director and instructor at DWU, both lend advice and arrangement assistance for the group when called upon.
“It’s actually a student-run band. My private lesson teacher (Amundson), who works at DWU, assists from time to time. And Ryan Stahle, he instructs all of us and is an amazing musician, helps us with stuff we don’t understand,” Van Meter said.
But the majority of the organization of the band comes through Van Meter and his fellow musicians. They schedule their practices. They book their performances. They choose their setlists.
The group had formed, practiced several numbers and come up with a name. All that was left was to take their love of jazz to an audience. Since their formation, the TriTones have performed at various events and fundraisers for local groups like CASA and the local farmer’s market. And while jazz music doesn’t necessarily dominate the charts like some other genres of music, they discovered people really enjoying their performances.
“It’s been great, a lot of positive feedback. People tell us that it’s really great that we’re doing this and that we love this music. It’s been a really good response,” Van Meter said.
More performances are on the way. Van Meter said they are contemplating a show at the Back 40 in the near future, and the group is also set to perform at the school winter concert. The group has even been invited to perform and present at a meeting of the South Dakota Music Education Association due to the student-run nature of the group.
“We got an offer from the SDMEA. They asked us to give a presentation at the meeting and play,” Van Meter said. “It’s kind of a unique thing. Almost no high schools in South Dakota have combos that are entirely student-led.”
As a group is made up of students who are still in high school, the future of the band is destined to change as the years progress. One member of the group will graduate this year, and a few more are due for the same next year. Van Meter said they are looking to establish the group as an entity that sees an ever-changing lineup of players as they make their way through high school, ensuring the TriTones will continue making music even if the names and faces of the members change.
Scouting for future members is already underway, Van Meter said.
“Levi is the only one leaving us next year, but we have a freshman Mason Benzow who is not in the band right now. When Levi leaves, I want (Benzow) to kind of continue on since so many of us are juniors, a lot of us are going to be gone in two years. We want someone else to carry on this combo, because this is a really cool thing happening at this high school,” Van Meter said.
Van Meter believes the tradition can continue. All it will take is for more high school musicians to discover the appeal of playing jazz and the joy that comes from playing together with friends and making music together.
“If you look at jazz and all that you can do in jazz, it’s not a hard thing to pick up. It’s not something where every note has to be right or perfect,” Van Meter said. “Jazz is where you make mistakes. If you can’t quite play or are hesitant, jazz is the perfect thing for you to start doing. It’s such an open field to experiment with what you can do. It’s a limitless field.”