State College

State High musicians rehearse with famed Navy jazz band, The Commodores

Hollidaysburg native and Penn State alumnus Music Senior Chief Matthew Neff plays the bass trombone with the United States Navy Band Commodores Jazz Ensemble at the State College Area High School on Wednesday.
Hollidaysburg native and Penn State alumnus Music Senior Chief Matthew Neff plays the bass trombone with the United States Navy Band Commodores Jazz Ensemble at the State College Area High School on Wednesday. CDT photos

Four State College Area High School students were given the chance of a lifetime Wednesday afternoon.

Band members Anna Hirsch, Nathan McKinstry, Jonathan Rowell and Dan Thomas picked up their instruments and “played the blues” with some members of the The Commodores — the U.S. Navy’s jazz band — said high school band director Paul Leskowicz.

The Commodores contacted Leskowicz last spring to host a free public concert at the high school’s auditorium as part of a larger fall national tour that makes stops in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania through Nov. 14.

But the band’s mission is to also educate local youth as part of its Music in the Schools program.

Headed by Musician First Class Kevin McDonald — the Navy band’s drummer — he and a group of fellow jazz musicians led the high schoolers in an hourlong workshop that taught them a broader meaning behind the music.

“Music is like having a conversation,” McDonald said.

He added that the students he worked with Wednesday afternoon were “a great group who were really responsive.”

“They had so much to ask and had so much curiosity,” Leskowicz said. “You have a highly regarded group come in and help get a group of kids to see music in a different way ... it was great and a real honor to host them.”

State College was the fourth stop of 18 on The Commodores tour.

But for one member, Tuesday’s performance in Hollidaysburg and Wednesday’s show in State College literally hit home.

Senior Chief Musician Matt Neff grew up in Hollidaysburg and graduated from Penn State’s school of music in 1992.

The bass trombone player said that playing with the The Commodores was something he wanted to be a part of since college, after being inspired by their work from the 1970s and ’80s.

Neff was in the Navy’s concert band for 17 years before making the cut in 2009 with The Commodores.

“There’s something really special about playing with these kind of people,” Neff said. “We want people to witness that kind of high level of professionalism and be the example of that professionalism.”

Founded in 1969, The Commodores are made up of 18 performers under the direction of Master Chief Musician Phil Burlin. They write, arrange and perform most of their own music, according to information from the band’s website.

The annual tours are meant to give its members the opportunity to engage with their audience, in areas of the country that do not get to experience the band’s work on a regular basis, a report from the Navy said.

Neff said this year’s fall tour made its first-ever stop in State College.

“We’re a different side to the unit that brings Navy awareness and tells the Navy message,” Neff said. “Each night we honor those people and honor the veterans.”

The concert began with the national anthem, followed by a handful of original vocal and instrumental numbers, and ended with a tribute to local veterans — of which targeted a large part of the audience.

All Navy band performances are free and open to the public, but a ticket is still required.

Their next stop is 7 p.m. Thursday in Scranton at Lackawanna College.

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