Mountlake Terrace High School’s Jazz Ensemble 1 (Jazz 1) spent nearly the entirety of their Thursday at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) for a long day of preparation, balanced with lavish treatment, for the Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival. They arrived at 10 a.m. on Thursday, May 10 for a rehearsal with their assigned mentor, Kenny Rampton, a trumpet player of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). They met in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola to refine Jazz 1’s skills for their forthcoming performance.
“You’ve already won,” Rampton said when the rehearsal began. “The fact that you guys are already here, you guys already won.”
His statement was met with applause from the band and their chaperones. Much to the band’s surprise, band director Darin Faul asked Jazz 1 to start the rehearsal with “Teri,” the second song on their set list. He asked that senior guitarist Gian Neri sit out for the first few play-throughs.
“Sing the harmony,” Faul said to the band during the beginning of the song. He stopped their performance to again ask that Jazz 1 sing the opening harmony of “Teri.”
Faul reiterated musician Justin DiCioccio’s advice from the previous day to find intonation within the heart and to give “Teri” a feeling of positivity within darkness.
“What did he say? Listen with your heart,” Faul said.
Afterward, Rampton let Jazz 1 play their other two songs for him to critique. Rampton told the band that he was unsure if the listeners in the back of the room could hear the nuances in their performance.
“When we have dynamics, we really have to exaggerate them.” he said.
Rampton continued to fire up the band with power and new techniques. However, he advised them to not “lose their chops” by having their best performance during practice, and not onstage.
“‘Don’t forget to breathe’ is my favorite thing to say.” Rampton said.
Jazz 1 took it from the top and began to perform their entire set list in order. This time around, their feedback included investing more emotion and energy into their playing.
“Music is not pretend. Music is in every moment. We should be making music,” Rampton said.
Faul soon stepped in to personally ask the band what he could do as a director to improve the band’s ability. Sophomore saxophonists Caden Hargrave and Owen Moreland expressed their desire for more excited encouragement from him. Senior bassist Sophie Parsons suggested that Faul smile more while conducting, which would cause her to smile and loosen up onstage.
When Faul asked what the band members can do for each other, they said they could become more immersed in their solos. He then let Rampton step in to give more feedback to Jazz 1, which Rampton took as an opportunity to let the band know they’re talented on their own, even without Faul’s direction.
“First of all, great job,” he said. “I appreciate that your band director’s asking what he can do to make you guys play better and bring it out of you, but he doesn’t even need to be here for you guys to play great. You guys play great. Own that. Know that.”
Rampton enjoyed the energy of “Harlem Air Shaft” and “Teri,” saying he hopes Jazz 1 can put that same energy into “Harlem Congo.” He explained how a song should be fun for both the performers and the audience. As a solution, Rampton recommended the members play a tune in their head as Faul counts them off, which would make their entrance sound more like they’re jumping back into a song as opposed to starting a song.
“What we do today affects tomorrow,” he said. “You want to make the earth vibrate with that [energy].”
Jazz 1 continued to gather momentum in the time leading up to the Essentially Ellington performance.
They experienced the traditional red carpet moment later that day. As the second group to do so that day, Jazz 1 walked down the translucent blue steps of JALC with live announcing, cameras flashing, a cheer tunnel and a brass band providing the background music for their grand entrance into the Rose Theater.
The band was immediately greeted with a performance by JLCO, led by Wynton Marsalis, professional musician and artistic director of JALC. JLCO hosted a Q&A session for the 15 high school jazz bands selected to participate in Essentially Ellington.
Members of JLCO gave the audience guidance and direction on expression through music and finding a balance. Marsalis addressed a question about the lack of female representation in the jazz industry, to which he responded by extending the scope of diversity to include his experience with facing a lack of racial diversity when he grew up.
“When you don’t see yourself, put yourself in,” Marsalis said. “When you want to see yourself in a place, put yourself in that place.”
He compared the black population in New York from when he was a kid to now. Regardless of the time period, Marsalis often found himself being the only black person in a group.
“We need you to create change. It’s something we have to consistently and always fight for,” he said.
JLCO also described the natural transfer of leadership within their band and the importance of effectively collaborating by learning from others’ creativity. During this time, Marsalis spoke on his personal beliefs regarding the connection between the human race and music.
“Music had to be part of the birth of humanity,” he said.
When he found the right time to take a short break, Marsalis led JLCO in performing a song two more times during the Q&A.
Following the event, JALC had the bands divide themselves into their respective instrument groups to attend section workshops. The saxophones moved to the Louis Armstrong Classroom, where mentor Patrick Bartley advised that the second saxophones relay the same message as the lead saxophones in their playing.
The trombones met on the fourth floor with their mentor, Vincent Gardner. He ran the musicians through exercises where he took three volunteers, all from different schools, and had them play a piece of music together.
“In jazz music, what’s important is not that you play something, it’s how you play something,” he said in reference to the activity.
Jazz 1 had the chance for a short break after the session workshops. They all soon reported to the Appel Room for a dinner where they were assigned seats based on their instrument to encourage socialization with other high schoolers. There, the band members ate and talked to other jazz musicians while their view at dinner overlooked Central Park.
For the next event, the high schools dispersed with the ability to move between the Atrium and the Appel Room for jam sessions. Each high school could sign up a maximum of 10 students, who JALC would then assign to perform a random jazz composition live with a JLCO member.
Around 15 members of Jazz 1 requested a spot in the jam session, but only 10 could participate—Rio Neri, Ernesto Torres, Henry Smith-Hunt, Ben Leonard, Ethan Pyke, Solomon Plourd, Gian Neri, Sophie Parsons, Caden Hargrave and Josh Setala.
In both rooms, the combos performed in front of large windows that displayed the nighttime view of New York and Central Park. Each performer, including the JLCO members, had a turn to solo during their song. Toward the end of the jam sessions, the performers were back-lit by flashes of lightning that overtook the city view through the windows.
After completing their schedule packed with rehearsals and learning, Jazz 1 ended their first day at Essentially Ellington.
–By Annika Prom, MTHS Hawkeye