Ellington is Essential

Pam’s Pictorama Post: This is a quick post today as I am dashing off to Rose Hall (the House of Swing) where I spend much of my time since taking up my post at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Having recently hit the two year mark, now it is hard to remember that there was a time when the labyrinth of our backstage confounded me. But this post isn’t so much a reflection on that as how I will spend my day today. This weekend in May belongs to a competition of fifteen of the finest high school jazz bands the nation has to offer fighting for the title of the best in the US.

Among the somewhat myriad educational programs we run, this one is called Essentially Ellington. Born out of the realization that most of the arrangements for Duke Ellington’s music were lost, Wynton Marsalis began a journey of recreating them (a band member actually does this each year) and distributing them for free to high schools all over the country. Many of these high school jazz bands then compete regionally for the opportunity to be one of the bands chosen to come to Manhattan to show their stuff and compete for the national title which happens over a three day period in May – this year culminating today in the finale of the 24th year of the program.

The first year I attended I thought – man, a whole day of high school jazz bands – I wonder if they are paying me enough? I was very quick to realize how very wrong I was. These kids are amazing – think Olympics of jazz band competition. I’m telling you – people would pay to hear most of these kids play.

Although it is a competition they are generous with their praise for each other – great solos are met with thundering applause and approving cheers, each school’s performance given an enthusiastic standing ovation when it completes its rounds. Last year when a young female trumpet player hit what is sort of the triple crown – winning the composition award, top achiever award and her band taking best in the competition – the approval of her peers just about brought down the house. Additionally, the ovation of the kids for their band directors at the end of the festival went on for seven minutes – there is love to spread around in that hall on Saturday night.

Since I am a fundraiser I know the details and demographics well. Half of the schools that compete nationally are what are called Title 1 schools which is the designation of those which are financially disadvantaged. Understanding the lack of resources at those schools, and even with the assistance we can offer (financial as well as providing some on the ground educators to train band directors and do some clinics with the bands locally at the schools), it is nothing short of a miracle what these chronically under-resourced schools achieved in order to arrive here this weekend.

While all the students are all of a high caliber, there is nothing like the moment when one of them takes a solo and suddenly the judges all sit up a bit and start to smile. As jazz musicians themselves they can’t help responding to the music. Yesterday during a trumpet solo by a young man from Rio Americano high school in Sacramento began his solo, I too found myself sitting forward in my seat and when the group from Snoqualmie, Washington took the stage next we were all blown away by a young woman who took her turn soloing, singing and playing the trumpet. Memorable.

By the end of the weekend new friendships will have been forged among the students – and for some of them, especially those who pursue a career in music, those are the seeds of cohorts that will inform the professional relationships of a lifetime. Many of the band directors will send love from the stage to wives who are chronically deprived of husbands on Mother’s Day again and again over the years. (The competition is webcast on our jazz.org site and many of the competing schools are watching it and cheering their school in auditoriums back home although a variety of parents and teachers travel with the kids as chaperones.) My colleagues from all parts of the organization, from the Chief Financial Officer to assists, will each be responsible for one of the bands throughout the competition. Seeing them in the civvies for long days and evenings in the hall is part of the drill.

It is all as American as apple pie, if also somewhat exhausting. As one fan said of the festival, there’s something about it that is very democratic, and for this and other reasons we will all find ourselves wiping a tear here and there over the course of the three days. So it’s 7:00 AM and I have to get to midtown. Let the finale begin!

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