Waltrip Band — Robert Paniagua

Waltrip trumpeter Robert Paniagua was named one of three ‘Outstanding Musicians’ by National Jazz Festival judges. (Contributed photo by Kelsi Wilson)

The Waltrip Roaring Ram Band hosted the program’s annual end-of-year banquet and awards ceremony last Saturday night, May 22.

By the end of the night, band director Jesse Espinosa and his students were celebrating for another reason altogether. As they cleaned up following the conclusion of the banquet, the band discovered that the piece it submitted had won first place in its division at the 2022 National Jazz Festival, according to Espinosa.

“We were jumping for joy,” Espinosa said Tuesday. “You name it, we were feeling it.”

Beyond the win itself, it was a night to celebrate for Waltrip Jazz Ensemble No. 1, which won its division in the program’s first time competing in the national event. Senior and lead trumpet player Robert Paniagua was also named one of three “Outstanding Musicians” by festival judges.

“You all should be so proud of how these students have represented our campus, the Houston Independent School District, the city of Houston and the state of Texas,” Espinosa wrote in an email announcing the win.

In order to be considered, schools had to submit a video of no longer than 20 minutes for judges to view. Waltrip’s jazz ensemble recorded the performance of three songs for the festival – “Soupbone” by John Clayton, “Lifelong Friends” by Kris Berg and “Ram-Funk-Tious,” a tune commissioned specifically for the school’s jazz band and composed by Kris Berg in tribute to former Waltrip band director Charlie J. Stevens.

And though he could not remember exactly how many submissions were sent in for Waltrip’s division, Espinosa said there were videos submitted by schools in Connecticut, New Jersey, Virginia, Indiana, Florida and Oregon as well as submissions from Canada.

“I wasn’t really sure (initially) who we were up against. We’re just trying to do our very best,” he said. “And the judges saw fit that we earned first place.”

It has been quite a year for the Ram Band’s jazz ensembles, according to Espinosa. They have performed as invited guests at the International Jazz Education Network conference and the Texas Music Educators Association conference and taken home several college festival awards.

They have also shared the stage with legendary jazz trumpeter Jon Faddi, all prior to their win at the national festival.

“This experience is so special every year, because it’s always a different crew of students,” Espinosa said. “It’s just phenomenal what these young people have put together.”

And the Class of 2022, he said, has earned a little special recognition for its ability to stick together through a tumultuous few years. Like all other senior classes around the region and state, they have gone through COVID-19, which later forced virtual school and practice sessions and an eventual re-acclimation to in-person learning over the last few years – all the while continuing to hone their craft and keep the Waltrip band tradition going, according to Espinosa.

Espinosa said 16 of the 21 members of his Jazz Band Ensemble No. 1 are outgoing seniors. The longtime band director is outgoing as well, having announced that he is leaving Waltrip, his alma mater, to become the band director at Klein Forest High School..

“They’ve stuck together more than most classes have in the past – especially in the jazz band,” he said. “That’s a huge reason why they’ve been able to do some things that we’ve never done before.”

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