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The smallest state and the biggest band sound

Should America's big states have all the good tunes?

High school musicians in tiny Rhode Island (1/260th the size of Texas) don't think so. Proving that small is beautiful, they've formed the Rhode Island High School All Star Jazz Ensemble.

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The band itself, whose 20 members come from high schools across the state, is not small. But the state is. And that's the secret of the ensemble's success.

''We can gather from the corners of the state in about three-quarters of an hour's time,'' says Ted Casher, the band's bearded, bald, and burly director.

All-star groups in most states, he says, get together only a few times during the year. But in Rhode Island, after auditions in October, the musicians rehearse every Tuesday night at the centrally located Warwick campus of the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI).

As a result, they develop considerable skill and a lot of heart - as well as a lively schedule of concerts. In June the ensemble spent several days in Washington, D.C., under the aegis of the United States Department of the Interior. Its assignment: entertain visitors waiting for White House tours.

And on Aug. 21, back home in Newport, the group played its final concert - a 45-minute prelude to the Kool Jazz Festival (successor to the famous Newport Jazz Festival) on the same outdoor stage which later that afternoon held such luminaries as George Shearing, Mel Torme, Gerry Mulligan, and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Was this concert worth waiting for, I asked tenor saxophonist Paul Choquette, a high school junior from Woonsocket, as he sprawled on a blanket in bright sunlight after the festival proper began?

''Oh, yeah!'' he exclaimed, ''This is like a dream.'' Then he added, ''But when I start playing in the real one, that'll be even better - not before the show starts.''

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Like many of these young musicians, he takes his jazz seriously. He already plays in a four-piece group for weddings and parties, and hopes to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston (known for its jazz programs) after he graduates.

His colleague Tommy Whaley, whose dazzling trombone solo combined the mellowness of Dorsey with the high squeals and double-tonguing of more modern players, is equally serious. He plays every Monday night with a professional big band in Providence - alongside his trombonist father. This fall he is off to the University of Rhode Island, he says, on a full four-year scholarship.

The ensemble got its start two years ago with money from the federally funded Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the University of Rhode Island Foundation. In addition to buying music, the money was used to hire Ted Casher. A professional saxophonist, he had previously been composer-in-residence for the council and is an assistant professor of music at Dean Junior College in Franklin, Mass. His job: audition the 60-odd students who turn out, then rehearse his selected group for the school year. He is committed to the group, he says, because it enables the good musicians to work together. To progress, he says, ''the 10s have got to play with the 10s.''

Funding from the council ended last May at the close of the academic year. But Jane Mahoney, director of education programs at the council, loves the band and notes that ''we have no problem with funding.'' The council's Artists in Education program, she says, is one of the nation's best: while 41 states endured federal program cuts this year, hers received a $10,000 increase. ''We're just waiting for a request,'' she says.

Another factor in the ensemble's development, says Casher, has been ''the great set of parents that follow the group.'' One of these is Lloyd Kaplan, who, as head of the music program at CCRI, arranged for the band's rehearsal space. Another is Carol Pratt, whose husband, Dennis, is band director at West Warwick High School and whose son Chris played trumpet in this year's ensemble. During the year, she says, the parents also met together every Tuesday night and helped plan fund raising projects for the Washington trip. Evidently, too, the character of Ted Casher has been central to the group's success. ''He's not only a real good director, he's a real good guy,'' says tenor saxophonist Choquette. Another student musician, though noting that the director is ''sometimes too lenient'' in his demands, admits that Casher's enthusiasm is infectious.

Ted Casher returns the compliment - by planning to continue with the program next year. ''If the funding comes, it comes,'' he says philosophically, adding, ''I'm not worried.'' His real reason for continuing, he explains, lies deeper: ''It's the responsibility of those musicians who know how to show how.''

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