Meet Katrina Zarate. She's a senior at Rincon/University High School, and she hopes to depart our fair city to go to college in Boston later this year. But that's to deal with later.

Right now, it's jazz time.

With a straight face, this high school trumpet player can say she's in at least three different, successful bands. She's the drum major of the Rincon/University band, which is recognized as one of the best high school bands around these parts (About Rincon/University, Arizona Jazz Academy head Doug Tidaback gushes: "You'll hear it as a professional group"). Plus, she plays in two bands that are part of the AJA: The Arizona Women's Jazz Orchestra and The Ellington Band, the top group among the five middle school and five high school bands, all named after jazz greats, that fall under the AJA umbrella.

"We're a really strong band," Zarate says of The Ellington Band. " We're the best high school band in town, and we're better than some college bands."

A big boast, yes, but it's a boast that's backed up by acclaim: It will officially be announced at this weekend's Arizona Jazz-a-thon that the Ellington band has been invited by the International Association for Jazz Education to participate in North Sea Jazz Festival on July 9-11 in the Netherlands--one of only a handful of student bands to get such an invite. The invitation will be eagerly accepted, assuming the band can raise enough money for the 19 students, from a variety of local high schools, to go.

"It's a huge honor," says Tidaback.

Tucson jazz fans will get a chance on Friday and Saturday (March 27-28) to see The Ellington Band, Zarate's two other groups and a plethora of others at the Muse during the aforementioned Second Annual Arizona Jazz-a-thon. Tidaback estimates more than 600 students from area high schools--as well as the bands from the UA, NAU and ASU--will converge in the Fourth Avenue area to perform.

And they won't be alone. Professional musicians, both local (including the Tucson Jazz Chicks, featuring Susan Artemis and Mary Redhouse) and from out of town, will join the students and perform with each of the bands. These guests include Mike Crotty, an ASU jazz virtuoso, and the internationally acclaimed trumpet player, Mike Vax.

Members of the public will have plenty to see and do at the Jazz-a-thon. Some Fourth Avenue-area merchants are offering discounts to Jazz-a-thon attendees, and inside the Muse, workshops will be ongoing. Finally, each day will feature a come-all jam session, allowing anyone and everyone to play with the students and the experts. But the music will take center stage.

"It's a smorgasbord," says Tidaback. "In terms of (jazz) styles, every one will be covered. If there's any style of jazz that you like, it will be in these concerts."

But Tidaback says that performing is the No. 2 priority for the festival: Students and education are the first priority.

"Not only are (the guests such as Crotty and Vax) great performers; they're also serious about education," he says. "They have personalities the kids enjoy being around. They'll be there the whole day to swap stories."

Zarate says the interaction with these jazz virtuosos is the most exciting aspect of the Jazz-a-thon for students--that, and getting to see all of their various friends.

"You get to see the progression of the high school bands and the university bands," she says. "You get to play with musicians like Mike Vax and other artists in town. All the music is played a lot differently. You can see the different directors' perspectives, and you can always pick something up, like, 'Wow, that trill sounds really good.'"

Tidaback notes that for music lovers, watching this process--the interaction of students with professionals and young musicians pushing their limits for a big performance--can be heaven.

"Listening to that edge (they) find, when it's the best (they've) ever played--you can get wrapped up in that, when musicians push their comfort zone," he says.

The Second Annual Arizona Jazz-a-thon will start at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 27 and 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 28 at the Muse Community Arts Center, 516 N. Fifth Ave. One- and two-day passes are $10 and $15, respectively, and available at the door or by calling 250-7256. For more information and an up-to-date schedule, visit the Arizona Jazz Academy's Web site at azjazzacademy.org.

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