BOSTON — AS freezing winds whipped down Massachusetts Avenue, the air inside Berklee College of Music hung thick with humidity. It was 11 p.m., and a tired Jeffrey Lesser stood shaking his head in disbelief during the awards ceremony. He was stunned that his band from Willingboro (New Jersey) High School had won first place in Class 1 of Berklee's High School Jazz Ensemble Festival. The towering trophy didn't go to the band with the slickest outfits, the shiniest instruments, or the most technically precise sound; it went to the most musical group.
``Never in a million years - it's so unbelievable,'' exclaimed Karen West, a trumpet player in the 19-piece band.
The competition had been tough. More than 90 bands from the northeastern United States drove through heavy snow to play their licks before judges from one of the country's top jazz schools. Hailing from Maine to Connecticut to New York, many of the jazz ensembles had played before in the 22-year-old festival. But for Willingboro High, a mostly black suburban school, it was a new experience.
``When you walk into this place, you're thrown by the amount of good music and the setting, and it makes you nervous,'' said Mr. Lesser, Willingboro's sprightly young director.
In contrast, jazz bands from North Kingstown (Rhode Island) High School have been in the contest for the last 17 years.
``It's a tremendous competition,'' said North Kingstown's director, Joseph Pelosi, earlier in the afternoon. ``It's a lot of pressure for these kids, 15 and 16 years old.... Chances are, the first-year bands aren't going to win any prizes.''
Though his prediction didn't hold true this year, the caliber of the nine finalist bands was intimidatingly high. At the Berklee Performance Center that evening, the bands displayed dexterous drummers, perfectly in sync sax sections, and trumpet players who tossed off high notes with flair.
``The young players of today who are good are better than young players 25 years ago,'' said Joe Viola, renowned saxophone player at Berklee and one of the judges. ``They're technically faster ... and the music they play is much more complex.''
Because the students from Willingboro were scheduled to perform last, they didn't hear the other competitors. ``I'm glad,'' Lesser said backstage before they went on. ``I don't want us to get depressed over how good everyone else is.''
Lesser had not been expecting to win, because he and it had never before competed together. Willingboro was a brand-new ensemble, formed this year after two high schools merged.
When the preliminary cuts were announced at 4:30 p.m., Lesser sprinted up five flights of stairs to tell the band it had been chosen for the finals. After breathlessly breaking the news, he collapsed with mock drama on the floor. The kids went wild. When the ruckus died down, he told them to remember that ``having fun'' and ``learning'' were the main objectives, not winning a trophy.
Out in the hallway, a flock of Willingboro students said their band's major asset was ``our unity'' and mentioned the strong friendships in the group. ``Last year we were on different sides, but now we're together,'' said drummer Brian Martin. Rigorous practicing was key, too, the kids said. ``Mr. Lesser pushes constantly, and that starts to rub off on us,'' added Brian.
Around 9:30 p.m., the Willingboro band was ready to go on stage and wrap up the evening's competition. It had been a long, exhausting day, and the students were yawning.
A major crisis had loomed a few hours earlier when their bus drove off with some of their instruments. Besides that, they had sweated a lot lugging trombones, guitars, drums, and amplifiers on and off the bus, up and down stairs, and through Berklee's maze of stuffy rooms and corridors.
``These poor kids!'' said Jacque Lesser, the director's wife. ``I think some of them regret having stayed up until 2 last night at the motel.''
``I keep forgetting we have to get on the bus and drive for six hours after this,'' mumbled one of the girls, sitting on a box.
By the time the curtain rose, however, and the band members saw an audience about 1,000-strong, they gave what several of the kids later said was their best performance ever. The last ``chart,'' called ``Payback,'' featured crisp playing from the horns and saxophones and an imaginative rhythm section that swung with a true jazz feel.
``I was sweating so bad for hours and hours,'' said Lesser immediately after the performance, ``but when we got up there, and the kids started to play ... I actually had fun on stage - I couldn't believe it!''
During the award ceremony, Willingboro's drummer, two of the trumpet players, and the pianist received prizes. When the host announced Willingboro as the first place winner in Class 1 (schools with over 800 students), pandemonium broke out among the band.
Why did Willingboro win? ``It was different from any band that appeared that night,'' said Mr. Viola, after the contest. ``The players produced so many different colors with their instruments. Some were a little sloppy in spots - but so what? They were very musical.''
The band's victory was especially meaningful, said chaperone Anne McCleery, because ``these kids weren't supposed to get along.'' Because of the merge with a rival school, friction between the two student bodies had been predicted. Fortunately, it never materialized in the band, or in the school in general.
When it was time to head home, the band members sent up a ``hip! hip! hooray!'' for Lesser, who stood sheepishly in the midst of them. Full of new energy, the kids then piled into the warm bus waiting outside on the curb.
Lesser lingered behind in the cold, a few snowflakes collecting on the trophy in his arms. What will he tell the people back at school?
``I don't know,'' he said. ``I'm not sure they'll understand the magnitude of what this means.''