Twenty teenagers tap their feet, bop to the beat and play music written 60 years before they were born.
These students are part of a jazz band from the Denver School of the Arts that was chosen to compete at the Essentially Ellington Competition in New York City. Fifteen groups were chosen from a pool of over 100 high school bands from across the U.S. to play in front of modern day jazz legends.
Bands at the Denver School of the Arts qualified for the competition three times before, according to band director Dave Hammond, who has been teaching jazz to young musicians for more than two decades. But Hammond said the students this year are the best he has heard.
“Whenever I hear the band I'm often thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, these guys don't sound like high school students,’” Hammond said. “I've got so many [students] that are improvising at a professional level right now.”
The competition was named for Duke Ellington, one of the most influential American jazz composers and musicians in history. It is run by Wynton Marsalis, another jazz legend, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Many of the students in the band came to the school as middle schoolers and have been studying their instruments for years.
“For many of them, they’re seniors and this is the culmination of a seven-year stretch,” Hammond said. “Our program is like a conservatory which ensures the students approach their music and academics with rigor, excitement and the hard work of a blue collar worker.”
The students love jazz for the effect it has on them and on their audience, said Jack Bendure, a senior who’s been playing trombone a for 5 years.
“It's a healing force,” he said. “It's life. Every day it's going through my head.”
According to Hammond, the roots of jazz are as important to teach as its sound.
“If I was head of education for the United States I would ensure that every school had a jazz band to teach this extremely important history,” he said. “I think it's lost on many kids — what the African American experience has to offer all of us when we think about general oppression of a people, the loosening of that oppression and seeing a people rise. That's what Duke Ellington's music is all about.”
“Everybody that's done it in the past has led up to us doing it at this moment in time, and in the future, we'll just be another one of those people,” he said.
The national jazz competition can also be a resume booster for students who want to become professional musicians.
“I’m really looking forward to being able to draw influence from the other great players that are going to be there,” said senior D’Marco Martinez who plays bass in the band. He’ll be attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston next year. “I want to be in a big band someday.”
The students prepared three songs for the competition, including a Duke Ellington piece called “Solid Old Man” from the 1940s.
“I tell the kids, ‘It’s 18 minutes of fame and that’s all you get,’” Hammond said. “Within that 18 minutes, we have to show that Denver School of the Arts is stylistically playing correctly, that there’s a lot of energy in the music and there’s been a lot of study historically and culturally.”
Winners will be announced Saturday. If the Denver band is among the winners, they will get to have dinner with some of their idols, members of the Lincoln Center jazz performers.
Update 5/14: The DSA jazz band did not place in the top 3 at the Essentially Ellington Competition in New York City.
"They did extremely well," Hammond said. "They were disappointed for about 32 seconds. The workshops, music, networking and New York experience was thrilling for them."