What's in the water? Seattle bands dominate NY jazz competitionMay 3, 2012 @ 5:39 pm (Updated: 10:28 am - 5/4/12 )
Mountlake Terrace High School Jazz Ensemble I performs at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington, May 2011 (Photo: Frank Stewart for JALC)
The best high school jazz bands in the country have gathered in New York City for the annual Essentially Ellington Festival, the student Superbowl of swing.
And once again, Seattle-area schools are dominating the competition.
Roosevelt, Ballard and Mountlake Terrace High School are among the 15 finalists in the elite competition at the prestigious Lincoln Center, hosted by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis.
It's old hat for Roosevelt High. The Seattle school finished second in the elite competition last year, and has won it three times in the past decade.
Mountlake Terrace has made repeated appearances as well, finishing third last year, while Ballard is playing in the Big Apple for the first time.
So what makes our schools so super? Roosevelt band director Scott Brown says it stems from a commitment made long ago by some jazz greats starting with iconic Seattle musician Clarence Acox
"We've had some seminal national level band directors who kind of laid the foundation, so there's that great tradition of bands who like to swing," Brown says.
But it's about more than just the band leaders. Most agree the Seattle area has a unique musical culture unlike anywhere else.
"It's like a perfect storm of all these different influence of expertise in the classroom, motivated kids, a community that cares about it, the right funding for the public schools," says Todd Stoll, Director of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which hosts Essentially Ellington.
Stoll says in most cities students don't get the opportunity to even begin playing jazz until high school, while the Seattle area is home to numerous middle school programs and jazz loving parents who expose their kids early.
Mountlake Terrace High School junior guitarist Kyle Scherrer says his father first turned him on to jazz. And while many of his friends gravitate towards rock or rap, the gifted player loves the complexity and freedom of jazz.
It's almost like it demands so much creativity. Because you could hear 100 people play the same song and they'd all play it completely different," Sherrer says. "There's so many different ways to interpret everything. Really, the music you make is really made up mostly on the spot."
While there's a healthy competition between all the local bands, Mountlake Terrace band director Darin Faul says the community is close, many of the kids from different schools play together and many of the band directors are friends rather than rivals.
"When you have more than one high quality program I think it breeds sort of a healthy competitiveness and the bands end up pushing each other to a higher and higher level. And then it kind of spreads," Faul says.
But there is a downside to all the national acclaim. Lincoln Center's Todd Stoll says Roosevelt, Mountlake Terrace and Ballard all have big targets on their backs.
"Everybody knows that when there's bands from Seattle on the docket there's going to be some serious swing happening. It's kind of like the championship basketball team. Everyone's gunning for you. The other schools are looking at the Seattle schools and saying 'ok, let's see what you got.'"
The schools perform Saturday and Sunday, with the top three from the entire field going head to head Sunday night in a gala concert with Marsalis joining each for the performance. And don't be surprised to see the Seattle area well represented.
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