When Jazz at Lincoln Center announced the 15 finalists for the annual Essentially Ellington competition Wednesday, jazz buffs were pleased but not surprised to see two familiar names — Roosevelt and Garfield high schools, both from Seattle.
But for the first time in competition history, Mount Si High School, in Snoqualmie, also made the finals.
“We’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great musicians and educators in the area this year,” said the modest albeit thrilled Mt. Si jazz band director Matt Wenman. “It’s been a community effort.”
Remarkably, this is Wenman’s first year at Mt. Si and his first shot at the Ellington competition. Presented by the New York non-profit, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Essentially Ellington focuses on the music of Duke Ellington and is considered the “Cadillac” of student band competitions.
Originally from Gig Harbor, Wenman, 28, graduated from the University of Washington in 2008 and taught band and choir for three years in the Snoqualmie district, including a stint at Twin Falls Middle School, before moving to Mount Si last fall. He has been instructing some of his young charges in jazz band several years now.
His responsibilities at Mount Si include two jazz bands, three concert bands and a world drumming ensemble.
Wenman was quick to give credit to his predecessors.
“There’s been a history of building the music room,” he said. “It’s not like I could have just walked in and done this.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, Mount Si, Roosevelt and Garfield were also the top three bands at the Bellevue College Big Band Jazz Festival two weeks ago.
“It’s so funny,” remarked Garfield High School jazz band director Clarence Acox, “at these competitions, it winds up being the same bands from Washington, even though the whole region includes Canada and Idaho and the western states and Canadian provinces.”
Ninety-four bands applied this year to Essentially Ellington. The 15 finalists compete in New York May 8-10. Between now and then, each band will receive a free workshop and master classes with a professional musician and educator.
Since Essentially Ellington opened up to bands west of the Mississippi in 1999, the Northwest has dominated the competition. Every year, the Northwest has accounted for two to five of the finalists and Garfield has won first place four times; Roosevelt, three.
Other high school bands that have competed and/or placed second or third include those from Edmonds-Woodway, Mountlake Terrace, Ballard, Shorewood, South Whidbey, Mead (from Spokane), Battle Ground, Newport, Kentlake and Kentridge.