Paschal Jazz Band Came to Play…and Swing
By Jackie Ferguson
Where the West Begins … Cowtown … Panther City … and, more recently, Funky Town. Fort Worth has been known by many names. In light of the achievements of 26 jazz students from Fort Worth’s Paschal High School, perhaps Jazz Cat City should be added to the list.
The Paschal Jazz Ensemble 1 received the top prize in February at a major national jazz contest, earning the Spirit Award in the Big Band category at the 15th annual Charles Mingus Festival & High School Competition in New York. Mingus was a renowned jazz bass player and composer. Paschal was the only band from Texas and one of only 12 ensembles invited to the contest.
“This year, we just went for it,” said Matthew Sawyer, director of jazz studies at Paschal. “They had such an amazing time, and as a teacher, it’s all about that.”
Paschal juniors Ezekiel “Zeek” Luera and Cal Rustad were recognized as “Outstanding Soloists” in the Big Band category and were invited to sit in with the Mingus Big Band. Luera was invited to play Charles Mingus’ bass onstage.
Luera is relatively new to jazz. He plays upright bass in Paschal’s orchestra and joined the jazz band via Zoom during the pandemic in December 2020.
“I was used to playing classical, traditional music … you know, Beethoven,” he says. “I really like jazz, because you can’t mess up. You put your own spin on the music.”
Rustad plays many brass instruments including trumpet, mellophone and French horn and was named first trumpet in the Texas All-State Jazz Ensemble 1 in 2023, a significant achievement in a state this competitive and even more impressive for a junior.
“Considering all of Cal’s recent accomplishments, it all adds up to a really cool story,” Sawyer says.
Watching Sawyer conduct is like watching elaborate choreography. He leads with his entire body, bouncing to the beat as he points to individual musicians or sections to invite them into the song. Then, as a musician takes a solo, Sawyer rhythmically walks away, allowing the student to improvise without interruption.
“I like to be on the side and let them play,” he says. “It’s more about the energy and the smile as they are playing. It helps them be at ease during the performance. Some students naturally will want to stand up and take a solo, but others need a little more encouragement.”
Elise Stewart, a senior pianist, appreciates that teaching style. “I came in as a really, really nervous little freshman who didn’t want to solo and just wanted to play chords in the background. I’ve definitely gotten a lot more confident. He [Sawyer] lets us kind of figure it out in our own time.”
Bridger Whittier, a senior who plays tenor sax, agrees. “Mr. Sawyer is the only teacher I have ever had that gets to know his students so well that he understands how each and every student learns and builds a curriculum around each individual person,” Whittier says. “Three times a week we come together, and Mr. Sawyer guides us to collaborate — as individuals — to make real music.”
The Paschal Jazz Band started in 1961 and has won many accolades, including five at the national level since Sawyer joined Paschal’s teaching staff in 2016. Paschal regularly ranks among the top bands at metroplex jazz festivals and even played the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 2015.
Sawyer predicts continued success for the program. “This is probably one of the more exciting times for us, because we are only losing seven seniors, and we have 19 returning,” Sawyer says. For the past four years, he has worked to start a jazz program at McLean Middle School and says that has been “absolutely incredible for our program.”
See the Paschal Jazz Ensemble’s performance at the Charles Mingus Festival at instagram.com/paschaljazz. See and hear them in person at the Big Band Dance, May 5, at the Masonic Temple Fort Worth. Tickets and table sales are available at paschalband.com.