Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


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Essentially Ellington

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This May, the sixteenth Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival kicks off in New York City, and once again, exactly one Canadian band—Winnipeg’s River East Collegiate—is among the fifteen finalists.

Competition is stiff. Over 1500 schools receive Essential Ellington materials, including scores and recordings. This year, 110 bands submitted a recorded performance of three of the assigned tunes. A blind evaluation by a high-powered jury of jazz education experts whittles the field down to the top fifteen bands, and these young musicians get to strut their stuff on stage in New York City.

Essentially Ellington is an educational outreach project of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. A couple of months ahead of the competition, each of the finalist bands gets a one-day coaching session with a seasoned clinician to polish their performances. In New York, members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, all inspired educators, mentor each band. The students compete, but they also take in workshops and jam sessions—along with the heady atmosphere of NYC.

Marsalis kicks off the competition, and is one of the judges. Meeting him is an awe-inspiring experience for these young musicians, and he actually performs with the top-placing bands. The final awards ceremony also recognizes outstanding soloists and sections.

Jeff Kula, the director at River East Collegiate, is a wizard with his students. Their dedication and determination, along with Kula’s sensitivity to the Ellington stylings, have gained the River East Collegiate Jazz Orchestra a spot in the finals five times now, over a nine span. In a field of schools with bigger jazz programs and from communities with deeper jazz roots, that accomplishment is remarkable.

This year’s competition runs from May 12-14. Here’s to the young musicians who will take their Winnipeg spirit to the Big Apple. Play your hearts out!


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