Mr. James Antonucci’s Effect on the Hall High School Jazz Program

Photo by Steve McDonald, “James Antonucci enjoying himself conduct the Hall High Concert Jazz Band as they get ready to put on the production of Pops n’ Jazz”

Jack Cote, Staff Writer

Even though it has been canceled for this year, at 62 years and counting, the tradition of Pops and Jazz will forever be a part of the West Hartford community. The production – which showcases dancing, singing, and swinging jazz bands – has been on the rise over the last few years. Anyone that goes to this show, and watches the professional ability of high school musicians will always leave the performance asking themselves, “were those really high schoolers?” 

Months of hard work, as students prepare to give the audience five nights of memories, wouldn’t be possible without Emmett Drake, Brett Boles, Tessa Grunwald and James Antonucci. Mr. Drake, the overall leader of the production numbers – and known to write urgently needed arrangements in just one day – has always made sure that the show runs smoothly and efficiently, and that the Jazz Band doesn’t play 2 hours of Duke Ellington and John Daversa charts. 

Boles, in his second year as the choir teacher, has brought some of his broadway love and experience to this year’s show, especially as the theme was based in New York City. 

Grunwald, although labeled as the coach of the Jazz Dancers, has meant so much more to the show, constantly working on choreographing the big production numbers and making sure the Choraliers are moving with precision and purpose. 

Last, but certainly not least, is James Antonucci, the man who has changed the Hall High School Jazz program forever. “We all come together and bring out the best in each other and complement each other’s strengths,” James Antonucci said about his colleagues.

James Antonucci, the band director at Hall High School, has made it a daily priority to develop high school musicians into professional jazzers. Antonucci has been in charge of the jazz program at Hall for 6 years, consistently putting the program in a position to succeed. 

In his 6 years at Hall, he has made 2 Essentially Ellington festivals, won 3 Berklee Jazz Festivals, and, most recently, led the Concert Jazz Band to a first-place finish at the First Annual National Jazz Festival in Philadelphia. 

If those awards don’t give you a good representation of the success James Antonucci has brought to the Hall High School music program, I will throw one more at you: This year, the Concert Band was chosen to perform at the CMEA Showcase Performance along with the best select wind ensembles in the state, proving that Hall’s band program expands beyond just jazz.

Before his arrival at Hall High School, James Antonucci was trying to find his place in the chaotic world of music. He was playing countless gigs in New York and floating his way through symphony orchestras. In our interview, I asked Mr. Antonucci what his experience was like in New York City. “Fantastic and life-changing,” he replied. “I found it incredibly inspiring.  Instead of finding a community that was competitive and status-seeking, I found creative artists and meta-humans at the highest level inspired to share and develop their art.”

Antonucci was so attached to his music, constantly finding ways to improve, “Sometimes I would start playing [or] listening around 9:00 pm and not return to my one-bedroom studio until 4:00 am.”

But, there came a time when he knew there was more to a jazz career than just playing gigs. “I do miss being inspired and playing my horn 6-8 hours a day, but I don’t miss 2-3 nightly hours of sleep and generally not taking care of my own personal health.” 

As he began teaching at Hall, he has impacted, and prepared students, not only for their music careers but for any path one student would choose to pursue after high school. “It is so rewarding to help students navigate a particularly chaotic and what can be a challenging time in their lives,” Antonucci stated.

A current student of Mr. A’s, Harry Epstein, a junior trumpet player, expressed his love for the band director. “Mr. A has given me a fantastic education in jazz that I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” Epstein stated.

After studying for three years with Mr. Antonucci, Harry’s opinion and love for music have expanded to a whole new level. “Through CJB (Concert Jazz Band), I’ve received a true immersion in jazz culture and tradition,” Epstein explained. “Without Mr. A, I probably never would have become a committed jazz musician in the slightest, let alone where it’s brought me today.”

A former student, Eli Heinen, a current freshman trombone player at the University of Michigan, would always praise Mr. A, letting him know he wouldn’t be jamming and studying jazz music at Michigan if “The Nucc” (Mr. Antonucci’s most famous nickname that all the students love to call him) had never given him the keys to success during his time at Hall High School. “Mr. A didn’t only teach me the skills to be a better musician, but he taught me the skills to be a better leader,” Heinen explained.

Another student, brother to alumnus Eli Heinen, junior alto saxophonist, Dylan Heinen, expressed his own opinion of Mr. Antonucci saying, “Mr. A is a very influential and talented teacher that has guided the Hall jazz program to excellence, and plays a huge role in the success of Pops ‘n Jazz.”

Dylan not only talked about how Mr. Antonucci has affected the program but about his friendship with the band director. “He’s more than a teacher,” he said, explaining that Mr. Antonucci was more like family.

I asked Mr. Antonucci what he would say if he could say one thing to every student he had ever had at Hall? His response was that “talent only gets you so far. Outwork everyone at every opportunity and you will define your own choices laid before you, and you’ll get the opportunity to define your own professional working life. That is a true gift and one small piece of personal happiness that allows you to spend quality time on the things that deeply matter, like family and giving back to the community.”

James Antonucci isn’t just a band teacher or a killin’ saxophonist – though he can swing, shed and showcase his raspy heartfelt sound. He is a role model to us as students, a man who wants to make us all successful, whether it be in music or not.