Young Guns

Classic Arts Features   Young Guns
If it's spring at Jazz at Lincoln Center, it must be the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz band program, which culminates in a competition and festival in New York May 4-6.

In 2007 Jazz at Lincoln Center celebrates a dozen years of invigorating and inspiring young jazz students from across the country with its ever-growing Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program. This year alone more than 5,400 newly transcribed Ellington scores, reference recordings, and additional teaching materials were distributed by Jazz at Lincoln Center to more than 900 high schools in the U.S. and Canada, as well as to American schools in Bolivia, Brazil, France, Japan, Malaysia, and Switzerland. The internationally renowned program, which culminates in an annual Competition and Festival May 4-6, was even featured in a documentary titled Chops at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

"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," says Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis. "Bass players with sounds! Brass players wah-wahing with plunger mutes, the return of the swooping clarinet, swinging rhythm sections … the blues! Through this program, we have seen the power of Duke 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 come in from across the country in support of their bands and directors and other peoples' kids and music programs. You can feel their energy. And it enriches us all by illuminating the human value of this great music. It reminds us that jazz is indeed alive in the next generation."

This year Essentially Ellington has expanded to three tiers of membership: Premium (the original program with some added benefits), Basic, and Student Membership. The new levels are intended to provide more high school jazz bands with the opportunity to receive the educational resources of this program, including an easy-to-medium-level chart that teaches the skills to play Ellington's music.

"This expansion will give more students and directors the opportunity to engage with America's music through quality resources from one of the most important composers of the 20th century," says Jazz at Lincoln Center Education Director Erika Floreska. "Ellington's music teaches the building blocks of playing jazz while also introducing students to the history, the people, and the rich heritage of this homegrown art form. We hope the study of this music will become an annual part of all high school jazz band programs in North America."

For the second year, noncompetitive Essentially Ellington regional festivals took place that were designed to offer bands of all levels the opportunity to perform the music and receive professional feedback from Jazz at Lincoln Center clinicians and other jazz professionals. These regional gatherings were held in March at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Also this year, Jazz at Lincoln Center held its Sixth Annual Essentially Ellington Student Essay Contest, inviting students from all participating high schools to submit written pieces each describing a personal experience with jazz. Essays were received from across the U.S. and Canada and jazz expert and scholar Dan Morgenstern chose the winners. First place for 2007 was Alex Dugdale from Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington. Second place went to Jon Morgenstern of Mamaroneck High School in New York, and the third place winner was Julie Hansbrough from Greenwood High School in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

What do high school band directors have to say about Essentially Ellington? Timothy E. Hooker of Mamaroneck High School says, "Working on this music has focused each individual in each section to work harder to reach higher performance goals. It inspires excellence."

The competition for this year has been, as expected, top-shelf and tough. "Our finalists make up an array of outstanding communities that are dedicated to teaching jazz to their students," notes Jazz at Lincoln Center's Floreska. Throughout March and April, a professional musician was sent, free of charge, to each of these 15 finalist schools to lead an intensive workshop of rehearsals, lessons, and master classes. These free clinics were part of the rich 12-year history of this unique music education program, which has reached more than 210,000 students in over 3,700 high schools, produced and distributed more than 66,000 copies of 71 previously unavailable Ellington scores, and brought 78 finalist bands to New York City to participate in the Competition & Festival.

Eighty-eight bands entered the competition this year by submitting a recording of three Ellington works. The entries were evaluated in a blind screening by jazz education experts Ronald Carter and Loren Schoenberg.

A full season schedule for Essentially Ellington:

More information on the history of Essentially Ellington:

The Essentially Ellington Alumni MySpace:

Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at
Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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