WALNUT CREEK -- For Director Greg Brown and the Northgate High School Jazz Band, the sixth time is the charm.

Selected for the past six years to compete in the finals of the Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, Brown and his team won the top spot in the 2014 High School Big Band division. Competing with 11 other ensembles from across the country and grabbing the crown for the first time in their history, the band will perform at the 57th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival in September.

Every spring, instrumental and vocal ensembles from across the country -- from middle school through college level -- audition for entry into the finals.

The three-day competition, a packed musical marathon with concerts, jam sessions and clinics, culminates in award announcements.

Greg Brown, band instructor for theNorthgate High Schhol Big Band, plays his saxophone with the band during rehearsal  in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday,
Greg Brown, band instructor for theNorthgate High Schhol Big Band, plays his saxophone with the band during rehearsal in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The Monterey Jazz Festival has named Northgate High as the 2014 winner of it's award for best high school big band. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

"We were sitting in the back of the auditorium when they announced second place," Mitchell Collard, the Walnut Creek band's 17-year-old drummer, recalled. "We thought we couldn't have won."

Moments later, Collard and his bandmates were screaming with jubilation and running to the stage. "I've learned things don't come right away, but with hard working you can be surprised with what you can accomplish," he says, speaking both of winning the competition and daily life as a musician.

Paul Contos, the jazz festival's director of education since 2011, said in an email the Northgate band played a set that was "impressively cohesive, tight, (and) had a great feeling of energy as well as accuracy and synchronicity among its members and director."

Contos praised the band's attention to details and said high scoring in the competition's sight reading component was vital.

Brown agreed on that last point.

"It was sight reading that tipped us in," he says. "We felt we needed to develop that. We worked extra hard and it paid off."

At a recent band rehearsal, individual voices are audible at every dynamic level, and a noticeable sensitivity distinguishes the playing. A few minutes into the piece, Brown grabs his saxophone and joins them.

The Northgate High School Big Band during rehearsal in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The Monterey Jazz Festival as named Northgate High
The Northgate High School Big Band during rehearsal in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, April 29, 2014. The Monterey Jazz Festival as named Northgate High as the 2014 winner of it's award for best high school big band. (Dan Rosenstrauch/Bay Area News Group)

"Mr. Brown is all about the culture and why you should play a certain way," says Edward Evans, 17, a senior trumpet player with plans to become a professional musician.

He says six hours of daily practice can leave him frustrated, but Brown's rehearsal tendencies -- specific, hard driving -- means the band excels at changes (chord progressions) and "not playing boring chord roots and wrong notes."

Pianist Anna Waletzko, 18, says rehearsals are "hard-core," but at the festival, Brown directs them to "make it a party onstage."

She doesn't consider herself a dancer, but seated at the piano and given one of the band's Latin selections, she's tapping like Savion Glover and swaying with the grace of a ballroom dancer.

"In high school, things get stressful, but when you're playing music, all the rest just goes away," she says. "Jazz is a mix of focus and fun. If you're not enjoying it, you shouldn't be playing it."

Brown, a Hayward native, has been teaching instrumental music at Northgate for 18 years. The program is thriving, he said, but departmental cuts are always lurking.

"The numbers have been starting to slip, because next year's kids are entering without elementary school music education. "If they can't start music classes until middle school, other interests like sports compete and win out."

If winning a prestigious main stage spot at the Monterey Jazz Festival isn't enough to keep students coming to the program, Brown mentions other enticements.

He says annual gigs at Yoshi's in Oakland are big motivators, and professional guest artists he invites to the classroom provide history and an eat-breathe-dream-jazz mindset he struggles to define with words.

Grammy-award winning trombonist Francisco Torres' "Songo Gozon" was on the band's winning playlist, but Brown says it was Torres' visit to the class that really lit their fire.

"He was so excited young people want to play Latin Jazz," Brown recalls.

"They have to swing, they have to drill, then not let the print music get in the way.

"They have to reach inside themselves and create something new in the moment."

Northgate High
Big Band
The Northgate High School Jazz Bands are scheduled to play Monday, May 12 at Yoshi's (Oakland), with 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. performances. For more information go to www.yoshis.com/mobile/detail/id/4203