While most high school kids are listening to Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Justin Bieber, members of the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble have been immersing themselves in Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Benny Goodman, and it shows.
Listening to jazz is key to learning to play jazz, says Gregg Gelb, TYJE director, and the student musicians he works with have listened, practiced and performed their way to an invitation to the prestigious Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival at New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center in May.
Only 15 bands across the country are selected each year to attend workshops and perform for their peers and some pretty prestigious judges, including trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. They are selected after submitting recordings of pre-selected pieces that they’ve been working on – through both reading music and improvising solos – since last fall.
“You gotta credit these students,” says Gelb. “We go over and over this to get it perfect. I would never have wanted to do the same tune over and over again when I was young … [But] the music is just so deep and rich that there’s always something new to pull out of it and to get better at. So they’ve stuck with it.”
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Most of the bands selected for the top level of the Essentially Ellington competition are school based, which means they have rehearsals almost every day. TYJE, which is sponsored by Raleigh’s Philharmonic Association, meets just once a week, on Sundays. But as the time neared to record their Essentially Ellington submission, and now that they’re heading to New York to reach for the top prize, they stepped up the schedule.
“Every single week we memorized music, we listened to the music, we played the music, we sat down and went through the nitty-gritty of everything,” said Tucker Daniel, 18, a senior at Middle Creek High School in Apex and lead alto sax player for TYJE.
Getting an invitation to New York City is “like winning the lottery” for Tucker, who’s in his second year with the ensemble.
“Ever since I started playing jazz, I watched the Essentially Ellington videos on YouTube,” he said. “… I remember thinking, as a 7th-, 8th-, 9th-grader, ‘Oh my goodness, how cool would it be if one day I were to play on that stage?’”
He learned that what he called “one of those silly little kid dreams” was coming true when his phone rang during a rehearsal for his high school musical’s pit band back in February. It was a friend and fellow jazz band player calling from Wisconsin.
“She told me that her band didn’t make it,” he recalled, “and then she said, ‘but your band made it.’” There was some initial disbelief, but then she convinced him it was true. “At that point I had to hang up the phone because I was losing my mind,” Tucker said.
When the students head to New York City May 5-7, there will surely be nerves, Gelb said, but he doesn’t think they’ll get in the way of a good show.
“They surprise me in how mature and responsible they are,” he said of his musicians. “… I think they’re learning that it really pays to be a team player, it really pays to be disciplined and put in extra time and know how to do things on their own. A lot of it has to do with them being self-motivated.”
Another surprise for Gelb is the constant flow of young people, like Tucker and his TJYE bandmates, who develop a love for jazz despite its distance from the mainstream.
“These kids love it. Why would they be playing music from 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and spending so much time on it?” he asked, then answered: “It’s because it’s such great music.”
The group is also raising money with two concerts at which donations will be accepted:
▪ April 3, 7 p.m. at the Glenwood Club (3300 Women’s Club Lane, Raleigh). For a $15 donation, audience members can attend a masterclass rehearsal with New York jazz trumpet player Mike Sailors.
▪ April 17, 2 p.m. at the North Carolina Museum of History.