Monterey High School junior Vincent Randazzo watched the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra play Thursday morning with keen interest.

A vocalist with the school's jazz ensemble, Randazzo paid close attention to the band's tight-knit orchestration, to Hope Flores' pristine vocals and to the rhythm section's bold syncopation.

"That was really intense," said Randazzo, who will perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival as part of an a cappella jazz choir. "It's crazy to see people that started out with so much talent at such a young age. You have to be really good to be in that band."

The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra is composed of the best high school jazz musicians from across the country.

The band opened up the 2011 Monterey Jazz Festival on Thursday at the annual Concert For Kids on the Garden Stage at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey.

About 600 Peninsula students from Pebble Beach, Monterey, Pacific Grove and Carmel attended the concert.

Rob Klevan the festival's outgoing education director, introduced the band as "absolutely the best young men and women playing jazz today."

Concert For Kids began in 1991. Klevan said he was involved in each concert.

"It's an important component of our multi-faceted jazz program, which is really known around the world," said Klevan, who recently resigned from his post after eight years.

This year marks the band's 40th anniversary. It began as the Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star Big Band in 1971.

"It's a very big year for the band," said Klevan.

Band members come from as far away as New Jersey, New York and Canada. There are eight California members, including Flores, who wowed the crowd with her smoky voice.

Among the standouts are Kyle Monitor, a trombonist from Tigard, Ore., who is a three-year band member.

Monitor was joined in the horn section by trumpet player Tree Palmedo of Portland, Ore., in his second year with the band, and bass trombone player Chris Palowitch of Pleasanton.

Calvin Barthel, a trombone player from Albany, earned the Jimmy Lyons Scholarship to Berklee College of Music. The scholarship is named in honor of Lyons, the festival's founder.

Pianist Chase Morrin of San Diego is another band hot shot. He won a competition that landed him and his side group a spot on the festival's main stage Sunday.

The orchestra will play a Morrin composition during its Sunday afternoon showcase.

"This is a pretty special group," said Timothy Orr, festival marketing and media relations director.

Watching with a group of Stevenson School students, music director Eddie Mendenhall took a trip down memory lane during the concert.

Mendenhall was a member of the festival's 1989 and 1990 All-Star Big Bands.

Mendenhall, a pianist, recalled sharing the stage with the legendary Dizzy Gillespie.

"That was a great honor," said Mendenhall.

The band helped guide him in the right direction, Mendenhall said. He pursued a music career and never looked back.

"Interacting with the talented young players from around the country was a lot of fun," Mendenhall said. "It was a whole jazz immersion."

Orr said the event holds a unique role in the community.

"This event is important for us because it's a way to expose kids in Monterey County to live jazz," said Orr, "and it's performed by kids in their age group."

Marc Cabrera can be reached at 646-4345 or mcabrera@montereyherald.com.