For three days in May, two dozen Triangle-area high schoolers will venture to New York City to play jazz, or, more specifically, the music of Duke Ellington. The Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble was just announced as one of 15 finalists for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 21st annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. To audition, ensembles had to submit recordings of three Ellington tunes; the TYJE played “Blue Goose,”“Happy Go Lucky Local,” and Billy Strayhorn’s arrangement of “Laura.”

While in New York, the ensemble will eat, sleep, and breathe jazz, with a full schedule of rehearsals, jam sessions, and workshops. For the competition itself, all 15 ensembles will perform for jazz bigwigs Wynton Marsalis, Lauren Sevian, Jeff Hamilton, Chuck Israel, and Chris Crenshaw, with the top three getting to play with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It’s, as they say, a big deal.

I asked TYJE director Gregg Gelb about the competition, Duke Ellington, and the Essentially Ellington Festival.

Congratulations on making the finals

Gregg Gelb: We all are so excited. We have tried for the last three or four years. Each year, of course, is a new group of students, although we do have some students that have been in the band for two, maybe three years. This year’s group is full of excellent students, and they work hard. Many in the group this year have a lot of individual leadership skills, so they put in extra time organizing their separate practice sessions. All of the students are aware of the incredible challenge they have undertaken, because they know that the other competing bands are very advanced. Many of them have gone to the finals for many years. One other thing that makes it special is that we are the first North Carolina band to ever make the finals.

How is playing Ellington different from other big band music? How do the members of the ensemble react to Ellington?
I think Ellington, and his writing partner Billy Strayhorn, were able to craft the most artistic pieces for jazz big bands that exist in the repertoire. It seems all of their many compositions and arrangements are unique and never follow a repetitive format. The other thing that is special is Duke and Billy’s masterful ability of integrating individual solos into the composition. Ellington wrote for the individual players in his band, and some of those players—such as baritone sax player Harry Carney—played Ellington for 50 years. Thus, Ellington actually wrote for the players in his band, not for a general big band, and this gives all of Duke’s pieces the extra touch of individual personality. When our students play the solos and parts of Duke’s pieces, so much more warmth and personality comes through.

There are many fine arrangers writing for student ensembles, but Ellington stands out because the students find the music very interesting. Duke’s music is historical and gives insight into American culture at various past times. It has solos for many different players. It is one of the prime sources for how to swing. It shows them how to balance the ensemble and what type of tone to get.

During the Fall and Winter rehearsals, we concentrated on only the six Ellington tunes sent to us by Jazz at Lincoln Center. By doing that when we had to play a dance and a whole bunch of new music in a matter of weeks, the students were able to play the dance music very easily.

How is the national competition connected to the local Essentially Ellington Festival that just happened in Chapel Hill?
The UNC-Chapel Hill Music Department just had their jazz festival competition, and all competing bands have to play at least one piece from the Essentially Ellington repertoire. Plus, representatives from the Jazz at Lincoln Center EE competition are participating in the festival. So UNC-CH’s festival is called a regional EE competition. It is a great experience for the students. After each performance, a clinician from JALC, who is also a judge, gives a clinic. TYJE’s clinician was Justin DiCioccio, who is Associate Dean and Chair of the Jazz Arts Program of Manhattan School of Music. It was a great clinic. Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble was selected best Community Jazz Band.