Prairie Grove Junior High Jazz Band plays into elite ranks after multiple accolades

The band has been recognized on a state and national level

The Prairie Grove Junior High Jazz Band performs at the school's fine arts night Wednesday.

Within the past five months, the Jazz Band at Prairie Grove Junior High School in Crystal Lake has had a lot to celebrate, from a perfect score in a state competition to awards in national contests.

The jazz band consists of 18 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades who play instruments including trumpet, trombones, saxophones, drums, piano, bass and percussion.

“It’s a lot of fun,” band director Jeff Cylen said. “Working with that age level helps me let out my inner child, as a couple of my students like to say.”

This year alone, Prairie Grove’s Jazz Band 1 performed at the Jazz Education Network annual conference in New Orleans, won best junior high large ensemble in the national jazz magazine DownBeat Student Music Awards and received a perfect score at the Illinois Grade School Music Association State Jazz Band competition.

As the only middle school jazz band to be invited to the New Orleans conference, Crylen said “it was a shock” to be picked out of hundreds of applicants through blind auditions.

The Prairie Grove Junior High School Jazz Band 1 at the Jazz Education Network conference in New Orleans in January 2024.

Crylen started working as a Prairie Grove District 46 music teacher and band director in 2018. He has had a passion for jazz since he started playing the trumpet in eighth grade. He credits the band’s success as a reflection of the culture and relationships he built with the team.

“My favorite thing is getting the opportunity to work with the students and see how much that they’re capable of achieving when they know they have somebody on their side to continue pushing them, but also is there to help them,” he said.

The band learns from iconic large jazz ensembles such as Alan Baylock Jazz Orchestra, the United States Air Force Airmen of Note and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. Crylen focuses on the “nuance” of jazz and teaches his students how to perform improv solos. He’s not necessarily pushing his students into making music a career, but rather to enjoy it in their lives, however that may be.

“It’s a great activity for them to learn a lot about life and to learn a lot about themselves and how to work well with others,” he said.

Eighth grader Cadee Click, who plays saxophone, clarinet, trumpet and sings for the band, already has expressed her goal to become a band director, her mother, Crystal Click, said. Crylen’s encouragement to constantly keep improving has made a big impact on her.

“He has just inspired her and her growth musically,” Click said.

Although Crylen may have a talented group of kids, he knows how to bring out the best in them, Click said.

“There’s teachers and then there’s teachers that inspire you to follow your dreams and never give up,” she said. “They’ll never forget him.”

The Prairie Grove Junior High jazz band will give its last official performance of the school year, the Spring Awards Concert, at 7 p.m. May 23 for at the school, 3223 Route 176, Crystal Lake.

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