Kaitaia Abundant Life School music teacher Opeloge Ah Sam knew that the school's jazz ensemble had a mountain to climb long before it made its debut performance at this year's KBB Music Festival at Auckland's Holy Trinity Cathedral recently.

The 14 students, ranging from Year 8-13, the only Northlanders amongst the more than 100 schools taking part in the festival, had only been together for 18 months, and would be competing against some very well resourced, high-decile schools with impressive music pedigrees, he said.

And it wasn't going to be easy to capture the attention of judges who would be sitting through four days of performances, "pretty much the same type of stuff over and over", by the 78 schools competing in the jazz section.

"Our kids were up against it from the start, so I decided to take a different approach," Mr Ah Sam said.

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The set ended up comprising some "George Benson, Nina Simone, Acid Jazz and some funk", as opposed to the more traditional approach taken by most of the other schools.

"That was part of our secret," he added. And it worked a treat, the Kaitaia ensemble taking the bronze award.

He had also arranged for the band to play at Auckland Museum, which provided another "amazing" opportunity and experience for the students, following a performance for International Jazz Day earlier in the year.

A video of the KBB Festival performance was sent to the IJD website, where it gained the attention of groundbreaking jazz composer Herbie Hancock, who wrote a congratulatory letter to the school.

The KBB Music Festival has been showcasing the best in secondary school orchestras, concert bands and stage bands in Auckland since 1983. From small numbers, as the Auckland Secondary Schools Band and Orchestra Festival, this year it attracted more than 4500 students in 145 groups from 50 schools across the greater Auckland region and beyond in four sections — orchestra, chamber orchestra, concert and jazz.