A Decade with the Duke

Classic Arts Features   A Decade with the Duke
Essentially Ellington, Jazz at Lincoln Center's annual competition for high school bands, celebrates its tenth anniversary.

"The music of Duke Ellington is so important because he is the greatest of our jazz composers," says Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis. "His music teaches our kids how to play, and it teaches them how to get the sound of America in their instruments."

This year, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington program turns ten years old. For a decade, the music of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington has inspired and challenged high school jazz bands across the country in this competition for "best chops bragging rights." Past student competitor Aaron Q. Johnson explains, "What's awesome about Essentially Ellington is that it gives young people like myself the opportunity to see what they can aspire to."

"Our music teaches you the requirements of personal growth, as well as its value," Marsalis tells these students. "To develop your artistry, you have to work on it for 20, 30 years. You may have a lot of talent, but you're not going to play well overnight. You have to be patient but persistent. And even when you learn one technique well, you have to remain humble in order to develop other areas. It's important in jazz to develop many aspects of your musicality, because you never know what the other musicians you perform with will be able to play. In this way, jazz leads us in an acceptance and appreciation of other people's creativity while it helps us understand who we are and what we're capable of."

In only ten years Essentially Ellington has given more than 200,000 students the opportunity to perform 60 previously unavailable Ellington scores. More than 50,000 copies of these transcribed scores have been distributed to more than 3,500 schools in all 50 states, in Canada and Australia, and in American schools abroad. Seventy-one finalist bands have come to the great stages of New York City to compete in the annual competition and festival, which, this year, will culminate on May 14 and 15 at Frederick P. Rose Hall. With 15 bands competing at a time, this final event has been described as "the Super Bowl of high school jazz band festivals." The closing concert on May 15 at Avery Fisher Hall will feature the three top-placing bands of the year, along with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.

Essentially Ellington highlights the Duke's contributions to American culture by encouraging the study and performance of Ellington's music, facilitating the mentoring of students by professional jazz musicians, and preserving the composer's legacy for future generations.

"The students and I had a blast," says one director after his band's first year playing the Ellington charts (complete with scores and parts) that are provided by Essentially Ellington. "I can't begin to express how much we improved as a band. Our musicianship grew tremendously. At the end of the year we played some simple Grade II repertoire and let me tell you‹this was a different band. I am so proud of what they sounded like."

Personal growth through competition is part of what the program is about. For a mere $60, directors and students get six charts of the composer's music. They practice, learn, and live these charts so that they can turn in a competition tape in February. This year, the six Ellington scores that have been selected for competition are: "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" from Deep South Suite, "Purple Gazelle," "Isfahan" from The Far East Suite, "V.I.P.'s Boogie," "Ring Dem Bells," and "I Didn't Know About You."

In March, the 15 high school jazz band finalists for 2005 will be announced. Then, Jazz at Lincoln Center will send coaches for in-school workshops, which are "the most intense educational experiences," says the Associate Director of Education, Erika S. Floreska. She and Education Associate Jonas Cartano are involved in the nuts and bolts of the program, distributing monthly newsletters and facilitating the recording of tapes for competition and "comments only."

Laura Johnson, Jazz at Lincoln Center's Vice President of Education, works closely with Marsalis in taking it to the streets, "Over the last ten years," she says, "we've had the pleasure of witnessing extraordinary growth in the number of high school bands playing Ellington's music for state competitions, concerts, dances, and band fund-raising events. That's in large part due to the enthusiastic participation of directors in Essentially Ellington."

When the program began in 1996 it was open only to schools in the New York tri-state area. It then expanded to 13 states and Washington, D.C., in 1997 and then to all 26 states east of the Mississippi River in 1998. The following year, the program was opened to all 50 states and the U.S. territories. In 2000 Jazz at Lincoln Center inaugurated an annual companion program‹for educators only‹called the Band Director Academy. Essentially Ellington expanded in 2001 to include high school jazz bands in Canada. And in August 2002 the inaugural Essentially Ellington Down Under took place in Perth, Australia, at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

Last year, Jazz at Lincoln Center held its third annual Essentially Ellington Essay Contest, inviting students from all participating high schools to submit an essay describing a personal experience in jazz. Essays were received from across the country and Canada and were judged by author and scholar Albert Murray. In the essay contest this year, the First Place winners have the opportunity to name a seat in Jazz at Lincoln Center's new home, Frederick P. Rose Hall.

The top honors of the Ninth Annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival in 2004 went to Garfield High School Jazz Ensemble of Seattle, Washington (first place); Foxboro High School Jazz Ensemble of Foxboro, Massachusetts (second place); and Sun Prairie High School Jazz Ensemble I of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (third place).

"It was an honor to witness the remarkable performance of each finalist band," declared Marsalis at last year's awards ceremony. "It's clear that every musician has dedicated endless time and energy to the competition. I applaud each of you." He emphasized the life lessons involved, saying, "Our youth is the future of American culture and it's inspiring to see our youth embracing jazz. Swing is coordination and integrity. Swing is knowing control, knowing when to make appropriate choices, when to listen, and when to respond. These are choices that help us every day. Let the feeling of swing permeate everything you do."

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

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