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It may have been damp and rainy across the Missoula Valley on Thursday afternoon, but the music room in Hellgate High School was cooking with the tightly honed sounds of the school’s jazz band.

Salsa, swing tunes and exercises to make the horn section bust out bright and bold were all part of the fired-up practice.

The band, along with the MCPS All-City Orchestra comprised of middle school students and the University of Montana Wind Ensemble, have been selected to perform in Portland, Ore., at the National Association for Music Education’s Northwest Division biennial conference Feb. 14-17.

In addition to the three ensembles, 33 of Missoula’s top high school musicians were chosen from among thousands of applicants from Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington to perform in the conference’s All-Northwest choir, band and orchestra honor groups, said John Combs, Missoula County Public Schools fine arts director.

“There are so many outstanding music groups in the Northwest that apply to be part of this conference – they take very few,” Combs said.

“We are sending the most of any community in Montana to the conference, and I think that is really an indicator of the quality programs we produce for Missoula,” he said. “We have great music things happening in this town, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have these kinds of numbers selected for the Northwest conference.”

To be selected, ensembles and individuals had to submit an audition tape in which Montana music educators chose the best from the state, Combs said. Once Montana’s candidates were chosen, the audition tapes were sent on to the conference’s committee for final selection.

In all, 88 MCPS students will leave in four buses on Feb. 14 to perform at the big event.


“I’m super excited,” said Dillon Johns, a Hellgate senior who plays the upright bass and electric bass in the Hellgate Jazz Band. “I’ve always wanted to go to Portland and the fact that I get to go with my jazz band is even better.

“Not only are we going to Portland, but we will be there when the Portland Jazz Festival is going on and we will get to participate in that and watch some great jazz performances.”

Ben Dahlberg, who is new to the band this year, said he’s excited about the unexpected trip and the upcoming performances in Portland.

“I think it’s a great honor to be in the band in the first year and be selected for this,” said the trombone player.

Fellow trombone player Abbey Gilcrest said being part of the 20-member band is one of the best parts of being in high school.

“I really love playing in the band with everyone and it’s got great people playing in it,” Gilcrest said.

And the music, she said, is the kind that gets you moving and puts you in a good mood.

Among the eight selections the band will play for music educators at the conference and in the Portland Jazz Festival are “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Cubano Chant” and “Nostalgia in Times Square.”

On its way to the conference, the band will give performances in St. Regis and at Shadle Park High School in Spokane, Wash., said band director Leon Slater.

The upcoming adventure not only will be exciting and educational, but will be an opportunity for others to appreciate the talent Slater said he gets to work with.

“I say it every day: ‘I am such a lucky man,’ ” Slater said. “These are awesome, talented high school students and I get to work with them.

“This particular group is oozing with creativity, and that kind of energy tends to percolate all on its own.”

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Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at

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