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Essentially Ellington 2018: A first person account of the highest level of high school jazz

Ballard Jazz 1 in Central Park before the first concert on May 12. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Rowley)

Ballard Jazz 1 in Central Park before the first concert on May 12. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Rowley)

Ballard Jazz 1 in Central Park before the first concert on May 12. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Rowley)

Ian Harvey, Staff Reporter

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From when I started in the Ballard Jazz program, something that seemed unachievable was the Essentially Ellington Festival and Competition in New York City. Essentially Ellington has been put on by Jazz at Lincoln Center for the past 23 years to celebrate the music of Duke Ellington and the achievements of young musicians playing his music. Out of the 100 or so bands that applied every year, only 15 were selected, and knowing that Ballard had only once before made that goal seem even more unreachable.

The preparations started as soon as the year began. We as a band knew that we had the talent and the determination to get to New York so, why not? Recordings rolled around in January and we were optimistic. Everything was ready, but we weren’t sure if it was up to snuff with the bands that we were competing with.

It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-February, second period. The band is called into the hallway for a mysterious announcement. Mr. James refuses to say anything until everyone is there, but we know we will either be incredibly excited or disappointed. When I heard the phrase “We’re going to Ellington” I knew that this would be a good senior year.

Fast forward a few months, it’s May 8 at about 4:45 a.m. at Seattle Tacoma International Airport.  It’s still unbelievable that we’re going even after three months of clinics and long nights at school. Our first night in the city, we went to the Blue Note, one of the most famous jazz clubs in New York, and saw Ron Carter, the most recorded jazz bassist of all time.

The festival starts with a concert and Q&A with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. After that, all the students eat dinner with everyone who plays their instruments and the respective JLCO member. One of best things about this festival is the people that you meet and the connections you make. It really makes you feel like a part of the jazz community and you gain a ton of Instagram followers.

The next day, the competition begins. Ellington is an incredibly unique environment. It brings in only the most passionate people and everyone is there to make amazing music. Eight bands performed on the first day and of course they were all spectacular.

The next day, the last eight bands performed, and we were the second to last band to take the stage. Everyone in the band was nervous before we went on, but we knew that we had practiced too much to make any mistakes.

Beforehand, I sat down, and while looking at the wall in front of me, covered with pictures of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. I remembered that no matter what happens my duty is serve the music as best as possible. As soon as I finished my thought, we were off to the warm-up room.

After our warm-up and a quick pep talk, we took the stage. From here on out, all I really remember was Mountlake Terrace and Roosevelt chanting “Washington! Washington!” as we walked on stage.

After that came the final results for the competition. We were optimistic, but we knew that whatever happened, we’d be happy with it because it was out of our control.

“The top three bands in no particular order are: Newark Academy, Dillard Center for the Arts and the Tucson Jazz Institute,” announced the artistic director of JLCO, Wynton Marsalis. I’ll have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that we were not named in those top three, but those top three are just based on the opinions of the five judges, and as long as we were proud of our performance (which we were), the rankings didn’t matter.

Essentially Ellington is probably one of the greatest things that I have experienced in life so far. It combines some of the greatest music ever written with some of the music’s best practitioners. Essentially Ellington is living proof that the art of jazz is alive and well.

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Essentially Ellington 2018: A first person account of the highest level of high school jazz