The Essentially Ellington Experience


Garfield High School at Essentially Ellington, photo by Gilberto Tadday

Community Corner is a series that invites the public to contribute their thoughts, reflections, observations, and more about the world around us, particularly as it relates to jazz and music. Earshot Jazz is dedicated to amplifying the voices and stories of artists and community members alike. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this series are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Earshot Jazz. Please email submissions to editor@earshot.org.

In this issue, recent high school grad and Earshot Jazz intern Hazel Beaman sits down with her friend, who reflects on their recent experience performing at Essentially Ellington.


Fifteen of the best high school jazz bands spent the weekend of May 9th at the 29th Annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. Among the fifteen finalists were three local powerhouses, Roosevelt, Bothell, and Garfield High Schools. Being selected as a finalist is an incredible honor in itself, as over 100 bands send in audition recordings. The chosen finalists showcase three songs from the Essentially Ellington library on the Lincoln Center stage at Fredrick P. Rose Hall and compete for a coveted top three placement. These talented high school musicians are exposed to Jazz at Lincoln Center professionals and impressive New York City venues. 

Tuuli Walton is a Garfield senior who joined Jazz I as an alto saxophonist just this year. She reflected on her experience at Ellington in a conversation we had over Thai food takeout. She highlighted several unique aspects of the festival, one being an enthusiastic cheer tunnel on the first day. The bands all gather to cheer one another on, creating an atmosphere of accomplishment and prestige. “They definitely make you feel very special right from the beginning…The clinicians were always telling us how proud they were of us,” Walton told me, emphasizing the distinction between Ellington and a competition that any high school can sign up for, like the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, which Garfield attended shortly before their trip to New York. 

Each band was assigned a Jazz at Lincoln Center musician who shadowed them and offered feedback during the festival. Garfield Jazz worked with pianist Dan Nimmer, who offered the group valuable performing advice: “One thing he told us was to make sure we’re staying in the moment. When you’re onstage, it’s really easy to get an out-of-body experience because there’s been so much buildup. The entire purpose of these five months is one eighteen-minute set.” Onstage presence means listening to every detail of the music as it happens. Every performance is different, and it is easy to mess up when you detach from the experience. It’s a challenge every performer grapples with. 

Performances began Saturday, and Garfield was the second band to take the stage. Their set consisted of Duke Ellington’s “Miss Lucy,” Benny Goodman’s “Down South Camp Meeting,” and Ellington’s “The Shepherd.” After a spirited performance, the band congregated in the hallway, many in disbelief that the set they had been working toward day in and day out for five months was over just like that.  “A lot of the juniors are sad because we’re leaving, and we’re sad…we’re realizing this is the only chance we’re gonna get to do this,” Walton reflected. 

“Even if we go into music, the odds that we’re going to be playing on the Lincoln Center Stage are kind of low… I mean, we can work towards that.” For Walton, there was only one shot at Ellington. As a senior, she is grateful that her year in Jazz I came with a trip to the prestigious festival. 

Whatever the future holds, these musicians walk away with the greatest awards: irreplaceable memories with irreplaceable people. “For the most part, in our band, everyone is just really good friends, and these trips because there’s so much pressure just bring us together more. It’s kind of like a little family because everyone is invested.”



Posted on

June 27, 2024