The music of Duke Ellington continues to stand the test of time and ignite the passions of music lovers everywhere. Across the country, teenagers are presently taking on the Ellington oeuvre in Jazz at Lincoln Center's 13th Annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival.
Ellington's music is at the very heart of America's musical heritage and at the core of the jazz canon. Jazz at Lincoln Center, committed to instilling a broader understanding of this music, created Essentially Ellington in 1996 to make Ellington's music accessible to as many high school musicians as possible and to support the development of their school's music programs.
The 15 bands, chosen from 82 entrants, will compete and participate in workshops, jam sessions and more, during the three-day competition and festival in New York City. The top-placing bands perform with Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and guest soloist Wynton Marsalis, followed by a performance by the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra‹all of whom serve as mentors for the finalist bands throughout the weekend. The festival culminates with an awards ceremony honoring outstanding soloists and sections and the top three bands. The Competition & Festival is the result of the annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program (EE), which also includes regional festivals, curriculum resources, a companion summer Band Director Academy and more.
This year Jazz at Lincoln Center distributed more than 4,900 newly transcribed Ellington scores, reference recordings and additional educational materials to 900 high schools in the United States, Canada and American schools in Bolivia, Brazil, France, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Switzerland, Taiwan and The Virgin Islands. Eighty-two bands entered the competition this season, each submitting a recorded performance of three Ellington compositions. The entries were evaluated in a blind screening by jazz education experts Ron Carter and Loren Schoenberg. For the final competition, the 15 finalists will be judged by Wynton Marsalis, David Berger, Reginald Thomas and Bob Wilber.
Throughout March and April, Jazz at Lincoln Center sent a professional musician to each of the 15 finalist schools free of charge to lead an intensive day-long workshop of rehearsals, lessons and master classes. The in-school clinicians included Ron Carter, Justin DiCioccio, Vincent Gardner, Victor Goines, Wycliffe Gordon, Loren Schoenberg, Terell Stafford and Rodney Whitaker.
Free clinics are part of the rich 13-year history of this unique music education program which has reached more than 275,000 students in more than 4,000 high schools in all 50 states, Canada, Australia and American schools abroad. Essentially Ellington has produced and distributed more than 80,000 copies of 81 previously unavailable Ellington scores and 177 finalist bands have come to New York City to participate in the annual Competition & Festival.
"We've seen students' lives transformed through the EE experience," says Erika Floreska, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Director of Education. "From the intense and enlightening in-school workshops to the community of like-minded students from all across the country coming together during the festival‹it's inspiring! Every year we are captivated by these talented students and teachers and uplifted by their camaraderie and support for one another in their shared endeavors of competing, learning and playing jazz."
Another crucial element to this program is the annual Essentially Ellington Student Essay Contest, now in its seventh year, which invites students from all participating Essentially Ellington high schools to submit an essay describing a personal experience with jazz. Fifty-three essays were received from across the United States and Canada, from which author and scholar Dan Morgenstern chose the winners. In addition to prizes including jazz CDs and jazz literature, the first-place winner will name a seat in Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and has been awarded a trip to New York to read her essay during the festival. This year, the winners are: 1st place: Kelsey Van Dalfsen, Mountlake Terrace High School, Mountlake Terrace, Washington; 2nd place: Lina A. Colucci, Lexington High School, Lexington, Massachusetts; 3rd place: Emily A. Pecoraro, Guilford High School, Guilford, Connecticut.
Marsalis is proud of all the students that put in the hard work and practice to make it to the finals. "After decades of doing master classes in high schools across our country, it's hard to believe the impact this program has had on jazz bands," he says. "Through EE, we have seen the power of Ellington's music bring out the best in our young people. And each year our band directors and their communities become even more committed. This is one of my favorite times of the year‹when families from across the country come in support of their bands and directors and other peoples' kids and music programs. You can feel their energy. And it enriches all of us by illuminating the human value of this great music. It reminds us that jazz is indeed alive in the next generation."
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director of Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center.