When Seattle’s Roosevelt High School was announced Saturday as the winner of this year’s Essentially Ellington high school jazz competition in New York, the local jazz community not only swelled with pride but also heaved a sigh of relief.
Finally, the drought was over. No Seattle band had taken first place at the competition since Garfield High School won in 2010. Since then, local bands had consistently made the finals, with Roosevelt netting third in 2013 and second in 2011 and 2012, but fell short of grasping the brass ring.
“The kids set a goal for themselves to make it into the top three this year, and they were on it, in a big way,” said Roosevelt band director Scott Brown, shortly after landing at Sea-Tac airport with the band Sunday. “We won the Super Bowl.”
The comparison is apt. Started by Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1996 and opened to the West Coast in 1999, Essentially Ellington is the most prestigious competition in high school jazz. Fifteen bands compete each year, with Garfield High School and Snoqualmie’s Mount Si High School joining Roosevelt in making the cut this year, from a field of 112 bands across the country. Between 2002 and 2010, Seattle dominated the competition; between them, Garfield and Roosevelt alone won first place seven times during that period.
After 2010, however, schools that focused on specific subjects and that drew from larger geographic pools started to win, such as the Dillard Center for the Arts, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which took second place this year; the Tucson Jazz Institute, from Arizona; and the New World School of the Arts, from Miami, Florida. It looked like the heyday for neighborhood schools like Garfield and Roosevelt was over.
“The bar just kept getting higher,” Brown said. “But whatever situation you have, you’re just going to have to hang with that, and realize what’s called for musically.”
Brown was especially impressed by how hard his students worked this year.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “They were constantly getting together in section rehearsals at home, soloists were working with the rhythm section. They dug really, really deep.”
One of those soloists, Elise Toney, won an award as outstanding trombonist
“She kind of set the tone,” Brown said. “She’s always been a little shy, but she stepped up to the microphone and planted her feet and just pasted her solo on [Duke Ellington’s] ‘Solid Old Man.’ It was a breakthrough for her. It’s so great when you see kids get past their jitters and rise to the occasion like that.”
Roosevelt’s win this year — after previous wins in 2002, 2007 and 2008 — marked another milestone, too, in the friendly but real competition between local high schools. Until now, Garfield was top dog at Essentially Ellington; no other band had ever won four times.
“It’s very gratifying to receive a fourth win,” said Brown.
In addition to Roosevelt’s victory, “outstanding” citations went to eight local soloists. From Roosevelt: Will Knight and Carter Eng, trumpet; George Fulton, tenor saxophone; Nick Altemeier, baritone saxophone; Eli Sullivan, “doubler” on soprano and saxophone; Elise Toney, trombone. From Garfield: Aidan Siemann tenor saxophone; Tyler Feldman, guitar.
Four band sections were also deemed outstanding: Roosevelt for brass, trombone and trumpet; Garfield, for trombone.
Local musicians also earned nine honorable mentions. From Roosevelt: Aaron Korver (piano), Henry Mohr (drums) and Nate Mesler (vibraphone). From Garfield: Will Jammes (bass), Jack Graves (guitar); and Avinash Chung (alto saxophone). From Mount Si: Jackson Beymer (tenor saxophone); James Kolke (trombone); and Sage Eisenhour (vocals).