Just arrived in New York and went straight to Jazz at Lincoln Center. The 15 finalist bands and winning community band were about to play at the prestigious 15th Annual ESSENTIALLY ELLINGTON High School Competition and Festival which got underway Saturday, May 8th at JALC's facilities and auditoriums on Columbus Circle.
Over the last 15 years, 96,000 students have been involved in the ESSENTIALLY ELLINGTON Competitition. Most never get to be finalist, but the music and the experience engendered by the program reaches into high schools throughout the United States and Canada who ask to be included and receive the music used in the Competition.
This year, 1,550 different schools sought to be involved, and of them, 96 high schools submitted recordings of three tunes (from a list of Ellington and similar standards selected by JALC). Of those, only 15 high schools and one community band were chosen to participate as finalists in this weekend Essentially Ellington Competition.
Before coming to New York, JALC sends out members of its Jazz Orchestra to each of the schools finalists to hold workshops and help suggest ways for the high school band to better perform in the Competition. These musicians were JALC jazz all-stars Walter Banding, Ronald Carter, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Dana Hall, Sherman Irby, Loren Schoenberg, and Reginald Thomas.
The high school bands must raise their own funds and garner community support to get themselves to New York for a long weekend...and for many of the students and their parents, it is the first time to visit the Big Apple.
One of the first activities was "One-on-One" featuring JALC Musical Director Wynton Marsalis fielding dozens of questions from the hundreds of student from around the country: from Seattle, Washington to Miami, Florida, from Sacramento California to Boston, Massachusetts, from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Plano, Texas.
During his answers, Wynton Marsalis often celebrated the rich history of New Orleans music and his personal involvement with musicians from James Black to his own father, the legendary Ellis Marsalis. Always precise yet warm and humorous, Wynton Marsalis spoke honestly about the many times he almost gave up the instrument, how the older musicians saved him, and the importance of practice, love and commitment. He set the tone for the three day festival by returning to three basic themes: intelligence, integrity and love for jazz.
It was a rich hour and a half followed by workshops for the high school students with members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra including Sean Jones and Vincent Gardner.
Then in the evening, after a dinner at Columbus Circle at JALC overlooking the southside of Central Park, the young jazz artists joined two stages for jam sessions playing along side of JALC Orchestra artists including Walter Blanding, Ali Jackson, Loren Schoenberg, Reginald Thomas, and even Jimmy Heath, a special judge in this year's Competition.
Judges this year in addition to legendary sax artist Jimmy Heath were David Berger, Ted Buehrer, Rodney Whitaker, and Wynton Marsalis. Heath was a hit for the over 300 high school students who fed off his brilliant smile, his generous mind and his superb playing.
Sunday and Monday were dominated by workshops with musicians from JALC Ochestra and rehearsals, followed by each school performing before a packed house at JALC on Columbus Circle.
The opening performance was presented by the Tuscon Jazz Institute of Tucson, Arizona --- which was unique. They had already been selected as the winning "community ensemble". Because many high schools have had their music programs cut in the Tucson area, this Institute brings in students to practice and perform for several hours a week. Wow!! Off the charts!! They were brilliant under the Directorship of Doug Tidaback and his Assistant, Brice Winston. That's right, the same Brice Winston who was interviewed on WWOZ and later played tenor with Terence Blanchard at Jazz Fest just a few days ago --- and blew the top off the WWOZ Jazz Tent.
Then the regular high school competition began and over the next two days we were treated to fine, polished ensembles that had really done their homework. One was a newcomer, Dillard Center for the Arts from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They were a long shot, but their Director Christoper Dorsey helped them celebrate with enthusiastic and swinging presentations --- that got all the others kids to their feet applauding.
But winning this Competition requires more than soul; it demands excellence at all levels and through each section of the ensemble, let alone the arrangement, solos, and intellectual understanding of the particular tunes being played.
Two geographical areas had dominated the awards over the last 15 years, Seattle and New England. On Monday afternoon, after all 15 high school had given it their best, Wynton Marsalis read the name of the three finalists who would win the top awards and perform to a sold out house at the Center of American Music: Avery Fischer Hall at Lincoln Center.
Not based on ranking, they were Garfield High School of Seattle, Washington; Foxboro High School, Massachusets; and yes!! the newcomer Dillard Center for the Arts, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Each deserved to be in the top three --- all for different reasons. Several other bands had good arguments why they should have made it, but showed the sports-person-ship to applaud the winning schools.
And that night, play they did!! Incredible performances, with Wynton playing a tune with each band, and all of it followed by a performance of next years "selected tunes" (including two by Count Basie) by the full Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra!! The Jelly Roll was in heaven --- and I turned to my wife and said, "Don't get much better than this."
I will tell you who won --- by the way, there is a New Orleans connection here. But first, before doing so, I have to say something about Wynton Marsalis and what he has done at JALC. The entire operation of the weekend, the Competition and side events, were done superbly. That Marsalis elegance is rich and real --- and the experience that these 300 students had will change their lives forever. They will appreciate their art, the way to live life, and the importance of love and commitment for the music in a greater and clearer way. Excellence, excellence, excellence with heart and feeling. That is what JALC is all about.
Finally, all these kids were the winners. Dillard came in 2nd --- an incredible accomplishment for a first time entry. Foxboro took third.
The winner: Garfield High School of Seattle, under the Directorship of Clarence Acox....born in New Orleans, Louisiana, grew up in Pontchartrain Park in the Upper 9, and graduated from St. Augustine High School, NOLA.
Here's the question: why are not NOLA schools involved in this competition?