Inside An Essentially Ellington Clinic

May 3, 2007

ReportEssentially Ellington, the jazz education program run by Jazz at Lincoln Center, holds an annual competition in which high school bands submit recordings of Duke Ellington’s material in hopes of being selected a finalist.The 15 schools honored with this distinction travel to NYC to perform at the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition Festival and vie for an opportunity to take part in the closing concert – during which they’d be accompanied by soloist, legend, and Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director, Wynton Marsalis.One of the unique benefits of being an EE finalist is that, in addition to an invitation to the festival in NYC, each school also receives an in-house, hands-on workshop led by a professional musician prior to the events in New York.

King Philip High School in Wrentham, Mass., has been a member of Essentially Ellington since longtime band director Peter Tileston first heard of the program in 1997. The KPH Jazz 1 ensemble was chosen as a finalist in 2002 and again this year, so Tileston has already experienced the thrills of competition and performance in the midst of such highly distinguished peers and mentors. For his current crop of students, however, this is a novel adventure. I recently had the honor of visiting the school and observing their workshop, which was led by renowned pianist Reggie Thomas.

In front of a small audience of about 40 of their junior high school jazz counterparts and a few parents, the 21-member Jazz 1 band of King Philip High, with instruments in hand, formed a circle on the auditorium stage around Mr. Thomas. After a brief introduction by their EE mentor, they quickly got down to business. Section by section, phrase by phrase, song by song, Thomas worked his way around the stage and through the material, giving advice, encouragement, and focused demonstrations along the way.

The themes to which Mr. Thomas continually returned are eternal in the world of music. The first was that music is about communication – often the various instruments in a song are inter-related like voices in a conversation, so listening is paramount to creating a feel that flows.

Another was a saying everyone in attendance will remember: “You got to have that thrill in the heel to get that feel” (that’s pronounced, “Threel in the heel”). As the clinician explained, Duke Ellington’s music was made for dancing, and if it’s played flat-footed, it won’t have the swing it needs. The group spent long stretches working without instruments, enacting the music through singing and dancing – trying to solidify the rhythm and feel the connection between the parts. Even when the band resumed with full instrumentation, Reggie danced the time in the middle, stomping his heels with infectious enthusiasm while snapping his fingers or clapping his hands. It was obvious that the afternoon’s events would leave a deep impression on the young musicians.

Says Mr. Thomas, “The groups that make the finals are already playing at a high level, so when we go in and do the clinics, we can really be nitpicky and get in depth on some of the concepts. Doing these workshops allows the clinicians to come in prior to the festival in New York and really work with the ensemble, which is pretty unique. Most of the festivals, even when they have clinicians come in and work with the bands, only get to do that after the ensemble’s performance at the festival. Here, the ensembles get the benefit of having that instruction prior to going to the festival, so it’s that much more helpful in preparing them for the performance.”

For Peter Tileston, the opportunity to share Duke Ellington’s music with his band is an incomparable m ethod of stoking interest and boosting technical development. “Duke’s music teaches students how to listen and be accountable because every part is heard – the transparency in his writing is unparalleled. The music is full of the soul of the man as well as America.It was not written as institutional jazz education music.It is the real thing.It has demanded excellence throughout the ensemble such that musicianship in all areas has dramatically improved.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” says one young trumpet player. “I’m only a freshman and they’re asking me to play these parts. I started playing orchestra music in 4th grade and I’ve been playing jazz since 6th. It’s a lot easier to express yourself in jazz than in classical music.”

Being selected as an Essentially Ellington finalist is a great accomplishment, but the experiences that occur along the way – from the hours of rehearsals, private study, and the master clinic to the N.Y. performance itself – will provide a greater reward to the burgeoning jazz community in the educational systems across the country: the development of love and respect for a timeless music. As a smiling Reggie Thomas told the King Philip High School jazz band, “You’d be crazy to spend all this time and put in all this effort on something you didn’t love.”

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