Middle Creek High School senior Tucker Daniel plays alto sax in the Triangle Youth Jazz Ensemble, which was invited to compete in the prestigious Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival at New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center. Tucker is blogging about the ensemble’s experiences at the festival for the N&O.
May 4th, 2016
The night before
The saxes met dinner tonight at Ginza, then we went back to the house to watch Chops (a documentary on a band making it in the competition in the early 2000s). We are in shock that we will be flying out in less than eight hours. It’s still unbelievable, and we have been talking about that feeling all night.
May 5th, 2016
New York is amazing! The whole band is psyched to be in the city. With our extra time, we had the chance to walk around the city. I am in a group with our lead trumpet, second trumpet, and third trumpet: TJ Tucker, Brandon Wells, Matthew Wakeford respectively. We went to the Carnegie Deli for lunch, and were thrilled to have our meal paid for by the Philharmonic Association. Thanks to our fundraising, our whole trip was paid for, including all our meals! After lunch we got to see Lincoln Center and took some great pictures. Going inside of Lincoln Center and seeing our name on the news board was incredible. All those months of hard work had finally paid off, and we could physically see that in front of us.
After registration, and then go through what is called the “Cheer Tunnel” where we are introduced and lauded in front of groups of celebrities and musicians from around the world. I specifically recall seeing Cécile Mclorin-Salvant, an astonishingly skilled singer, in the audience, welcoming us to Lincoln Center.
Next we got to see the JLCO Open Rehearsal and Open Mic Q&A. Wynton Marsalis and the orchestra fielded questions. It was strange to see the auditorium from this point of view. It was much smaller than any of us expected.
Staying in Park Central Hotel is amazing! It is a beautiful hotel, much nicer than any that most of us have stayed in before. After checking in, we went to have joint sectionals with other bands hosted by select JLCO clinicians. We had Sherman Irby in our room, the sax room, and we were joined by two other high schools, the New World School for the Arts from Florida and the Byron Center Jazz Ensemble from Byron Center, Michigan. The energy and positivity shared in the room with our fellow musicians was encouraging for all of us.
Dinner was served in the Appel Room of Lincoln Center overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park. We were seated with people from the other bands who played our instruments. I sat at a table with other alto saxophone players, and we discussed our set and our schools and bands and rehearsal schedules. Eleven of the 15 bands accepted in this year’s competition are high schools and have a much simpler method of rehearsal, allowing for more regular rehearsal time. TYJE being a community ensemble, has a much more difficult rehearsal schedule. That night we stayed between the fifth and sixth floor, watching the jam session.
May 6th, 2016
This morning, my group got to sleep in late. We woke up around 9 a.m. and headed to a deli/café nearby. The food was to die for. After grabbing that and some coffee, we headed with the whole band to Lincoln Center to get lunch and put our instruments away.
After lunch, we had a rehearsal with our Jazz at Lincoln Center group mentor Vincent Gardner, lead trombonist for JLCO. He was very impressed with how well rehearsed we were. After rehearsal, the competition started officially. We headed back towards Rose Hall and watched the first eight bands. Astonishing performances indeed. We came in nervous, but more than anything we left excited and pumped to play.
Following the performances, we headed to Angelo’s Pizzeria for a TYJE “family” dinner as we call it. The band has meshed to become one unit this year and we really do see each other as family -- especially within the sections. The saxophones are so close, and we have grown to love each other and this music.
Kitano Jazz Club was next! We went to see Grace Kelly and her ensemble play a memorial concert to the great Phil Woods, and we got to sit front row and hang with her afterwards. Grace plays alto saxophone for the stage band in Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. She played an amazing set. We are all looking ahead to tomorrow’s performance with energy and preparedness.
May 7th, 2016
What an amazing end to an amazing week of music. Started the day with another delicious breakfast, and headed to Lincoln Center to watch the remaining bands. It was a humbling and shocking experience but more than anything else – fun. We were then pulled out of Rose Hall to get lunch before our warm-up block. Lunch was delicious, catered by Lincoln Center.
We headed to our warm up-room and the energy was unstoppable. Vincent Gardner did an amazing job of helping us warm up, and taught us the Essentially Ellington chant (a trade secret).
Walking on stage was surreal, but the audience was so warm and welcoming. We all felt so comfortable and happy to be there, playing came naturally. We put our hearts into our performance, and it paid off. We found out after the adjudication break that we were in the top 3 finalist bands.
The top three bands are given a chance to perform part of their set again, with a Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra member. We had Walter Blanding split the tenor solo part with our tenor saxophonist Griffin Ross. They were astonishing. They tore the house down.
The rest of the evening was spent in nervous anticipation of awards. We received a slew of honorable mention and outstanding soloist and section awards. Griffin Ross received a well-deserved outstanding soloist award, and our rhythm section was an outstanding section of the day. Philip Norris, our bassist, won the Ella Fitzgerald outstanding soloist award, only awarded to two people in the entire competition each year. He is the first bassist to ever win it, in 21 years of competition.
Eventually, Wynton Marsalis moves onto announcing finalists and their order. Third place is called… and it’s the Tucson Jazz Institute. I believe the collective group had a heart attack right at that moment when we realized – we did not place third! We were beyond honored to place second, to the amazing New World School of the Arts Jazz Ensemble. They were incredible, and played a beautiful set.
At the end, even though we were all in competition technically, the love in the air for each other and all the bands was palpable. It was such a great feeling.
Bryan Carter congratulated the TYJE by buying us a pizza dinner at midnight. We invited our sister section, the saxes from Beloit Memorial High School, to join us and then the Tucson Jazz Institute came along too! The friendships we made are just indescribable. Ellington has been an astonishing experience for all of us.