Essentially Ellington Marches With A Message

May 15, 2017

Wynton Marsalis trades in his trumpet for a drum. He leads the Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival opening festivities.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

The annual Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival brings the best high school jazz ensembles nationwide to New York City, where they compete live from Jazz at Lincoln Center.  They kicked things off this year with a message, New Orleans Style.

Jazz at Lincoln Center kicks off the Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival with a statement on the importance of funding the arts.  They have fifteen of America’s most talented high school jazz ensembles by their side to help.

“Today we’re having a big second line parade just to celebrate the opening of the festival and the competition, the achievements of these young people and this music, and to raise awareness for arts funding in America, education funding, how important this is.  I always say public education is one of the pillars of our democracy and the arts define who we are, especially jazz,” said Todd Stoll, Vice President of Education with Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The 'second line' parade makes it's way to Rose Theater
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

“So if you’re in New Orleans and you have a parade, the second line are the people participating behind the parade.  In New Orleans you have a professional band in the parade, everyone joins in behind.  That’s called the second line.  They generally are having a very good time with lots of revelry and sometimes adult beverages.  Today we just have a lot of noise makers and horns.  We want everyone to join us and have a good time.”

Wynton Marsalis leads dozens of musicians, mostly high school students.  He ditches the trumpet for a bass drum strapped to his chest. They march around Columbus circle and right into Jazz at Lincoln Center.  Shop employees and tourists take pictures.  Some are curious, some are confused, some are just blown away.

“C’mon when has that ever happened before.  I don’t know, has that ever happened before,” remarked one onlooker.

After the fun and festivities, students like Jack McDonald from Champaign Central High School in Illinois prepare for the Essentially Ellington competition.

“We have awesome soloists it’s going to be really fun.  Everyone is awesome.  It’s a really fantastic opportunity.  Just getting the opportunity to come here means we already won, and everybody else,” said McDonald.

Bill Leather is the co-director of bands at Mount Si High School in Washington state.  It’s not his first visit to Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Hundreds gather at Columbus Circle for the Essentially Ellington 2017 opening festivities.
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

“I actually was a part of this festival and competition as a student sixteen years ago, now I’m a director here with the band,” Leather said.  “It really wasn’t about the placing in the competition. It was just an incredible musical experience.  It’s one of the reasons why I became a band director.”

After a weekend of great jazz music, the Essentially Ellington 2017 first place prize went to Tucson Jazz Institute in Arizona.