Rajah: "[Essentially Ellington] is the most important thing I've ever worked for in my life so far."
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Five long years attending daily sectionals at 6 a.m. and working with professional musicians, helped set the foundation for pushing Jazz Ensemble 1 (Jazz 1) to continuously improve their music and teamwork. Their hard work came to fruition as Jazz 1 advanced as one of 15 finalists to Essentially Ellington (EE) for the first time since 2012. Notably, the streaks of two Seattle schools who had attended every year since the event began – Garfield and Roosevelt – came to an end. However, the area continues to be well represented as Edmonds Woodway and Mount Si were also selected.
Jazz 1 has earned the opportunity to participate in the 22nd Annual Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival in New York. The event will take place from May 11-13 and includes workshops, jam sessions, rehearsals, performances, a concert for all participating bands and an awards ceremony for the top three finalists.
Jazz 1 was practicing on Feb. 14 as per usual with professional saxophonist Mark Taylor who works with the band every Tuesday.
Band director Darin Faul suddenly ran into his office and began pacing around, making small talk on the phone. He knew exactly what the call would be about before answering the phone.
Once the call ended, Faul announced to the class that Jazz 1 was chosen as a finalist to attend EE in New York for the seventh time in MTHS history.
The news was met with a burst of energy, cheers, tears and screams of the students whose hard efforts paid off. Senior alto sax Kaylee McGovern felt the moment was “surreal” because the band’s spirits were low as they felt they didn’t measure up to other participating high school bands.
“All of our hearts stopped for a little bit,” McGovern said. “We didn’t do anything for the rest of the class just leaping around and hugging everyone else and screaming and losing our voices and trying to call our parents.”
Participating high schools submitted recordings of their music and underwent a blind screening. The finalists were then selected to travel to the “House of Swing” at Lincoln Center in N.Y. to attend workshops and perform together.
More than 1000 high schools in North America competed to enter the finals for EE. The purpose of the event is to disseminate the music of composer Duke Ellington, but the organizers of the event have incorporated other composers since the inception of EE.
One of the perks of EE is the chance to work with a professional jazz musician who is part of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. They will fly out from N.Y. to work with the finalists at each of their high schools. The so-far-unannounced visitor coming to MTHS will work with Jazz 1 on April 17.
Senior tenor sax Dylon Rajah said the band has always dreamt of attending EE and researched New York, an itinerary, hotel room arrangements, sights to see and looked into travel expenses and other specifics, even before Jazz 1 was accepted.
“[EE] is the most important thing I’ve ever worked for in my life so far,” Rajah said. “I’ve listened to their music for years. These guys are like idols to me. And to be recognized as one of the 15 schools in the country and meet my idols and play with them and learn with them and be with other talented musicians is a good way to possibly end my music career.”
McGovern feels attending EE will be a strong way to end her senior year and “see how far we’ve come as a senior class.”
“Especially for the seniors, what’s it gonna be like? What do we have to work towards? We’re so close to the end, but finding out we’ll have this one last push, this one last celebration at the end, we really have to dig deep,” McGovern said. “We gotta push all the way to the end.”
She described EE as “a good opportunity for those professionals to give their expertise and time to high schoolers” and to work with “top-notch bands who we respect as peers.”
Faul attributes this accomplishment to be more than just the result of one year. Since last school year, Jazz 1 has been taking part in early morning sectionals, creative music labs and jazz workshops. They consistently worked in musical clinics with professional musicians Mark Taylor, Justin DiCioccio, Steve Korn and Jiggs Whigham.
Despite all of this preparation, McGovern said she was afraid the band would put out music they felt was truly their best, but still wouldn’t quite make the cut to enter EE.
“When you put literal blood, sweat and tears into this process and so many hours and so many rehearsals and so much money and all of this stuff and you’ve put something together and you’re super duper proud of it, it’s really hard to take that step of vulnerability and present it to be judged,” McGovern said. “I was scared that my best efforts weren’t good enough.”
While rehearsing for the blind screening audition, McGovern also feared letting the band down by being the only person to mess up in recordings. Faul shared a similar view with his biggest concern being consistency. The winners for EE are decided through recordings of the high school jazz bands, which were not allowed to be altered in any way and had to be sent in as one recording done in one take, so Faul stressed every student having to play great at the same time.
However, Faul says the preparation process was “deeper than just practicing.” The purpose behind exploring music is also to understand jazz and be yourself, he says. He emphasized inserting one’s personality into their music, not as a solo, but in the context of the group.
“It’s easy to get distracted and forget why you’re there. You should not try to be somebody else, you should just be yourself. The challenge then is, can you be yourself when it’s different from other people?” Faul said, describing how he’d encourage his students as they prepare for EE.
Faul wants his students to see the benefits of being together because “being in N.Y. opens up the possibilities for their lives.” He believes it’s crucial for students to be in contact with successful people, deepen friendships, explore city life and learn how to work as a group.
“I hope [the students] get a broader view of the world because you get to meet kids from all over the U.S. and their experiences are different other times than ours and that interaction is really important,” Faul said.
While on the trip, McGovern thinks an important thing to keep in mind is to remember the band’s home roots and since MTHS is a “tiny school,” they earned this opportunity on their own. To her, attending EE is a culmination of her entire high school band career.
“Just through the process of being together for so much, it becomes a little bit more of a family. There’s some real family aspects in there,” McGovern said. “We argue with each other and it’s not always pretty and we get under each other’s feet and drive each other nuts and at the end of the day, we also know that they’ve got our back. It’s OK to be mad at them because deep down, we know that we love each other.”
Since she is in the Running Start program, McGovern considers band to be her central community at MTHS. It becomes more difficult for students to stay on top of things during this time of the year with classes picking up, a higher concentration of school work and other obligations, McGovern said.
In spite of these obstacles, McGovern hopes the band will not lose sight of their goals. She said the key to staying motivated is to find a love and appreciation for what you’re doing through “setting aside yourself and doing things you don’t always want to do or working with people [who] sometimes drive you crazy.”
“Of course, when you travel with people, it always is an experience that brings you closer with everyone because you have to live with them,” she said. “You get to know everything about them from the kindness of their heart to the dirty socks they leave everywhere.”
When EE comes around, Faul hopes the festival will be a “powerful transformation” in students finding their individuality in music to grow as musicians.