When the fifteen directors of the fifteen finalist bands of the 2014 Essentially Ellington high school band competition and festival, hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center, stepped onto the stage Saturday night at the conclusion of the four-day event to be honored by hundreds of students, parents and supporters, the ovation they received, which lasted easily three deafening minutes, caused the tears I had been holding back earlier in the evening to finally find their way down my cheek.
I am a winner.
I won because I allowed this experience to touch my soul at a deep emotional level. In fact, we all are winners. There was not one person I talked to - teachers, volunteers, staff, students, parents - that didn't say "This is the high point of my year." This annual event has become the pinnacle of what we do at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a culmination of everything we believe in and enjoy doing: education, performance and community service.
I win every year.
This is the seventeenth or eighteenth year I have been involved with the festival and it gets better each year. You can't possibly compare the level of this year's bands to what we were hearing almost two decades ago. The depth of understanding of the jazz language, the sophistication of the solos, the ensembles' use of dynamics and phrasing, is remarkable and inspiring. I think it is safe to say the existence of this festival has been a big part of this growing interest and ability at the high school level.
In some way this festival is a microcosm of what the world should be: a combination of personal incentive, social awareness, a lack of racism and sexism, and plenty of love.
Back in April I was sent out by Jazz at Lincoln Center on a mission in Montclair, New Jersey, where I had the opportunity to workshop the Jazz House Kids, a community band that had been accepted into the top fifteen. The band, run with enthusiasm and passion, by saxophonist Julius Tolentino, was swinging the roof off. In a TV news show called Arts in the City, hosted by Magalie Laguerre-Wilkinson, I predicted the Jazz House Kids would end up in the top three finalists. They did. You can watch “Arts in the City” here:
Each of us in the JLCO is assigned as a mentor to a band participating in the festival. This year I worked with the Community Arts Program from Coral Gables, Florida, and although they didn't make it to the finals, it's hard to say they didn't perform at the same or close to the same level as other bands that did. I think we all develop such an attachment to "our" band that when they don't win we feel we have been cheated. But in all fairness the judges (this year they were Wynton Marsalis, Jeff Hamilton, Dave Berger, Chris Crenshaw and Chuck Israels) must have the toughest time agreeing. It can't be easy, especially when the bands often play different material, making hard to compare directly. Also, when one band has great soloists, and another's ensemble shines, how do you decide which of these attributes is worthy of more points?
It has been a great four days and I want to give it up to Wynton, Todd Stoll, Maegan McHugh, and the whole staff and all the volunteers for a great job and heartwarming experience.