Miami Beach High opens Okeechobee Music Festival

Miami Beach High School’s Jazz Project lead the parade as a marching band, New Orleans-style, during the March 3-4 Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival.
Miami Beach High School’s Jazz Project lead the parade as a marching band, New Orleans-style, during the March 3-4 Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival. FilmMagic for Okeechobee

More than 30,000 people flocked to Central Florida last weekend to watch headline artists take the stage during the 2016 Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival.

The vast array of performers included Kendrick Lamar, Miguel, Robert Plant, Mumford & Sons, Skrillex and the Miami Beach High School Jazz Project — which opened the March 4-6 festival.

“We found out that the opportunity [to open] existed about a month ago,” said band director Joshua Figueroa, 29. “I asked the kids if they would be interested, and they yelled out, ‘Yeah!’ ”

The Jazz Project performed a 45-minute set that included seven songs. They led the parade as a New Orleans-style marching band and finished with a combined 90-minute jazz and hip hop set.

The idea to use the Jazz Project came from Paul Peck, 37, a founding member of the festival, who said the band contributed to the main objective of the festival: “Giving back to the regional community.”

“We wanted to use our platform to support Florida’s incredible young and developing acts,” Peck said.

“The benefits of engaging a regional high school band with such an esteemed history, and dedicated leader, speak to the essence of the festival.”

The band’s history dates back to 2004, when the school’s band flourished, according to Figueroa.

“When I graduated in 2004, we had a thriving program, but in the four years I was away at college there were changes,” Figueroa said.

Some of the changes were in administration, band teachers and school renovations, which all played a role in the depletion of band membership.

In 2008, there was a jazz band class of only 19 students, and a band booster account, a parent-ran organization, with an active treasurer and president.

That soon changed when Figueroa graduated from the University of Miami and returned to his high school to rebuild the band.

“I was going to move to Los Angeles after studying music at UM,” he said. “But the opportunity came up for me to rebuild the band program at my alma mater, Miami Beach Senior High, and I couldn’t say no.”

Eight years and 200 members later, the original jazz band has a host of ensembles and classes, including intermediate jazz band, jazz combo, marching/prep band, beginning band, concert band, wind ensemble, honors music theory, ap music theory, international baccalaureate music and a jazz piano class.

Band members also organize fundraisers — some have been car washes, spring/winter concerts, candy sales, boat show parking and raffles — to continue their efforts in the band.

Figueroa credits accomplishments, such as opening for the festival, for encouraging students to pursue music as a career.

“The kids were blown away,” Figueroa said. “Being physically a part of this festival opened their eyes up a bit to the fact that their dream is not out of reach.”

“We were exhilarated,” said Benjamin Dietch, 16, a band drummer. “It was the first step in a, hopefully, long and successful music career.”