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Taking Giant Steps: Lakewood High Jazz Ensemble To Play Apollo Theater

When Lakewood High School’s band director Michael Kernodle walked through the music room door eight years ago, he found one marching band, no equipment and a program without structure — a far cry from glory days half a century earlier.

It’s been a lot of work, but the St. Petersburg school's music program has exploded. It has three full-time music instructors who teach orchestra, jazz, piano, steel drums and AP music theory.

The 19 member jazz ensemble, one of three jazz bands at the school, has won a number of state and national awards, and it’s recording its second album. But none of that compares to when they will take the New York City Jazz Festival stage April 8 at the historic Apollo Theater.

"There's going to be a lot of musicians that's going on this trip, where they'll decide that this is what I want to do in my life. This is my love. I found my passion," Kernodle said.

The students will also get to break out and play different shows in the city, including at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Band members will also visit renowned jazz clubs and have mentor sessions with professional musicians.

To help finance the trip, the students released “Swingin’ on 54,” a full-length album recorded at St. Petersburg College.

Funded in part by the City of St. Petersburg, the record was recorded and produced by Tom Morris from Morrissound Recording, a studio in northeast Tampa that has recorded artists such as Aerosmith and Beyoncé.

The album features jazz standards arranged by the students and “Ice Butter,” an original composition by senior Michael Dodge. There will be at least four student compositions on the new album, which the band is recording before it leaves for New York City.

“The cool thing about this project is that most of this stuff is all original, so the kids have a chance to get some hands-on training of arranging, composing and coming together to make their own music,” Kernodle said. “How cool is that to say? I’m in high school and I have my second CD already out.”

With help from album sales, donations and the proceeds from live performances, the band raised $50,000 for the trip to New York City.

Graduates of the Lakewood High School music program have gone on to study music at the University of North Florida and Florida State. Many of them still play.

“You don’t realize how fast it’s moving or how it’s going until you look up one day,” Kernodle said. “I wouldn’t have dreamed that I’d be taking these kids to New York, to the Apollo, to another place in the country. Then other times I think that we’re just getting started.”

Over the years, the bands have gained the respect from college professors and professionals alike, Kernodle said. But getting to that point has taken a tremendous amount of work and dedication from both faculty and students.

“For me, it’s sort of like a dream. It’s like, someone please pinch me. But on the other side there is a tremendous amount of work, dedication and pride in your program that goes into this,” he said. “You can’t produce music or anything great like this without putting in the time and really caring about what you’re doing.”

For more information about Lakewood High School’s music program, and to donate, click here

Editor's note: Story has been corrected to indicate that Lakewood High School's Jazz ensemble will perform at the Apollo Theater April 8, not April 10. 

Tim Fanning is a WUSF Public Media Stephen Noble intern for spring 2018.
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