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The Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and singer Edna Vazquez collaborated with Woodburn High School's jazz and mariachi programs last week

PHIL HAWKINS - Woodburn freshman Priscilla Arechiga (left) rehearses with Portland singer Edna Vazquez prior to last week's performance at Woodburn High School featuring the school's mariachi and jazz bands along with Vazquez and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble.
When Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble executive director Douglas Detrick was looking for places to promote the group's three-night set of performances with Portland singer Edna Vazquez, he cast his gaze south of the metro area toward rural Marion County.

The 12-piece jazz chamber orchestra strives to cultivate the genre through collaborations with artists featuring a variety of musical backgrounds, and the fusion between the group's sound and Vazquez's mariachi-influenced vocals made Woodburn High School a natural choice.

"I heard a couple years ago that there was a mariachi band in the high school, which I had never heard of at that point," Detrick said.

He was also aware of the school's thriving jazz band program, and the combination of the two was almost serendipitous as the PJCE and Vazquez were preparing for their three-night performance in Portland, Gresham and Hood River.

"The mission of this organization is that we are trying to find new ways to bring ideas together, especially with jazz," Detrick said. "I knew (Woodburn had) a mariachi band and a jazz band and we could have that opportunity to bring them together, and that's what we're doing."

The PJCE and Vazquez visited Woodburn High School on Feb. 13, working with the school's mariachi and jazz programs for a special one-day-only class, culminating in a live collaboration at the high school in front of the entire student body at the end of the day.

All four groups opened the performance with a trio of songs before the PJCE and Vazquez took over for the remainder of the hour, showcasing Vazquez's powerful voice with its rich blend of mariachi, jazz and rock influences.

"She's kind of brought all those things together in a unique style with all those different sounds," Detrick said. "So in that way, it went really well for us that she's on that same path as well."

Vazquez immigrated to the United States as a teenager in the late '90s, making her way to the Pacific Northwest where she had the unenviable task of pioneering women's vocals in a musical genre that is very male-dominated and steeped in tradition.

PHIL HAWKINS - Vazquez moved to the Portland area as a teenager in the late 90s and made a name for herself as one of the first female singers in the mariachi scene in the Pacific Northwest."I lived tough years in the mariachi band," Vazquez said. "I started in a whole male mariachi band, and it was tough, but what I learned from that experience was to stand up often and to learn how to communicate with (men). And I think I did it, because now I have their respect."

Vazquez has seen the genre change and adapt over the past 20 years. What was once almost an exclusively men's-only style of music has grown and adapted, welcoming outside influences as its sound changes with a new generation of musicians eager to keep the tradition alive.

"We're thriving," Vazquez said. "They're pretty much accepting all this new generation. It's not that it's losing the tradition, but I think it's thriving into something different, and generations are now embracing that fact, period. It's not just with the mariachi band."

Together, Vazquez and Woodburn freshman vocalist Priscilla Arechiga led the school's mariachi band in their second song last week, with both the PJCE and the school's jazz band accompanying them in the background. Despite the two very different styles of music, the collaboration was seamless, a reflection of the big-band free form style that both genres share.

"Mariachi is almost like a jazz band. It's this blend of rhythm and we can play around," Vazquez said. "That is so inspirational to me. To experience and experiment a fusion that will thrive with other fields in music."

It's this collaboration that Vazquez and Detrick hope the Woodburn musicians walk away with once the memory of last week's performance begins to fade. Rather than isolating different genres of music and containing them in specific boxes, let them mingle together and create new styles that propel the music forward for the next generation to embrace.

"That's how it should be in life," Vazquez said. "We have to learn from each other, rather than isolate ourselves into small clusters, saying 'This is mariachi. This is rock. This is funk. This is jazz.'"

For more information on the PJCE and Vazquez, check out their websites at HYPERLINK "http://pjce.org/" hpjce.org and www.ednavazquez.com.

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