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The Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble (TYJE) has just recently returned from NYC after being one of fifteen national finalists at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival. Because of director Wynton Marsalis's brilliant musicianship and inspirational leadership, Essentially Ellington is the top jazz festival in the country. For 27 years, the festival has brought the nation's best high school bands as well as high school-aged community jazz big bands together for three days of learning and performing.
TYJE has gone to the finals each year they have entered since 2016 except last year, the Zoom year. In 2016 TYJE earned second place! This year's group won more awards than any of the groups since 2016:
Outstanding Rhythm Section: Ori Moore, piano; Thanush Patlolla, guitar; Alex Welch, bass; Rayah Thomas, bass; Ethan Oliver, drums, Hunter Guest, drums.
Outstanding Sax Section: Mason Reinhardt, Payton Salmonson, Jack Mulrooney, Connor Lee, Zeb Jewell-Alibhai, Nate Gillespie, Sean McCoy.
Outstanding Brass Section: Trevor Oldson, Eli Rachlin, Aidan Dumain, Andrew Cook, Dylan Lee, Luke Ramee, Angela Hu, Killian Hagis.
Outstanding Drums: Ethan Oliver
Outstanding Tenor Sax: Zeb Jewell-Alibhai
Outstanding Trumpet: Zeb Jewell-Alibhai
Outstanding Multi-instrumentalist: Zeb Jewell-Alibhai
Honorable Mention Trombone: Luke Ramee
TYJE, which is affiliated with the Philharmonic Association, is a big band of 8th – 12th graders from around the Triangle who audition in late August. The group practices every Sunday for two hours at North Carolina State University. The music performed is the professional music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and many more fantastic big bands. The music is published by Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) and distributed for free to schools throughout the country. Eight free pieces are sent out annually and the competition is based on how well the high school-aged bands perform music from JALC repertoire. Each band sends in an audition recording in January and the fifteen finalists are announced in February.
If you are fortunate to make it to the finals, it is a mad dash to prepare three pieces, schedule extra rehearsals, bring in clinicians to help prepare the band, and organize and fundraise over $25,000 for the trip to NYC. All of this has to happen in just about 100 days!
To get TYJE warmed up in New York City, I organized a club date at Iguana Nightclub when we first arrived on Wednesday May 4th. TYJE performed two great sets for an audience of family and friends plus many of my old high school classmates from Roslyn High School (Long Island, NY). I also invited TYJE alumnus Philip Norris to play with us. He is the son of Lisa Burn, who directs another one of the PA's jazz big bands, the Triangle Youth Jazz Orchestra. Philip has achieved a very high level of success as one of the preeminent jazz bassists in NY. I also invited two other pros, T. K. Blue and Benny Benack, to play tunes with us. Wednesday night was a smashing success!
The competition began on Thursday, May 5 with a cheer tunnel for all the finalist bands and then an assembly for all fifteen bands and their directors with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). Students listened to the wise words of Marsalis as he discussed the values of the competition and presented many of his views on the state of jazz and culture. Students had the opportunity to ask Wynton and/or JLCO questions. Interspersed were performances of next year's eight repertoire pieces by JLCO.
TYJE students asked great questions, and here are a few examples:
Nate Gillespie, a senior at Heritage High School, asked how he could decide what to do with his future. He wants to study engineering but keep playing music. Wynton answered that he thought it was very important to have young people go into other fields besides music, but that to keep playing was very important.
Rayah Thomas, home schooled, asked if as a young person she should play other styles of music instead of just concentrating on one style. Wynton said to definitely try all the styles of music you can so you can determine which is the style you like the most.
Thursday night concluded with a jam session in which ten pre-selected students from each band played two tunes each in a group led by a JLCO member. Each group was made up of students from different schools/community bands so there was a lot of collaboration with all the other competing bands.
On Friday eight of the finalist bands performed three pieces each for the five internationally acclaimed jazz musicians who were the judges: Jeff Hamilton, Marsalis, Joe Lovano, Carmen Bradford, and Chris Crenshaw, plus audience members. While not performing, all the other bands listened in the audience. We were scheduled to play fourteenth, on Saturday afternoon.
Each of the eight bands on Friday were very good and we had many thoughts going through our heads as we watched and listened – are we going to sound better, which of the bands sound the best, who has the best soloists, drummers, etc.
In addition to hearing the eight bands on Friday, TYJE also had a rehearsal with JLCO trombonist Dion Tucker. He did some fine tuning and said we had a great chance. After the competition (Part 1), TYJE journeyed to Little Italy for an amazing seven-course meal at an authentic Italian restaurant and headed back to JALC for a concert by the Julliard Jazz Orchestra at Dizzy's jazz club.
On Saturday morning four other bands played, and after lunch it was our turn to perform. The students were all set for their 15-minute program on Saturday afternoon. We had three excellent pieces: "Stablemates" by Benny Golson which was a piece that Dizzy Gillespie's big band used to perform, an Eddie Durham arrangement of "Blue and Sentimental" for the Count Basie Band, and "Trombonio-Bustoso-Issimo" which is a Cat Anderson tune arranged by Duke Ellington. Not only are these three challenging pieces, but also TYJE played these pieces from memory.
As we waited backstage for our band to play, another band was finishing up their set. Little did we know that we were following the band that went on the win the competition, Osceola School of the Arts from Orlando, FL. Osceola had the audience cheering like crazy. Following Osceola was tough, as was playing on a stage we had never performed on before. We did our best but after watching 13 other great bands, our nerves got the best of us.
After part three of the competition the judges deliberated and then at 4pm they made their announcements. The top three bands were selected and later that night those three, plus JLCO, performed at the awards ceremony. The awards ceremony was fantastic. One of the awards is given to all the band directors. Marsalis asked all fifteen band directors to come up on stage. He then asked all of the students to show their appreciation. The applause went on for 20 minutes! He finally asked each band director to get their award, and when he shook my hand I saw tears and much emotion in his eyes. Without him I doubt there would be such a great festival.
It was a great experience for TYJE and now we start to set our sights on returning to Essentially Ellington next May. We will hold auditions for TYJE and the other three jazz groups in the PA in late August. Please go to our website for more information.