On the A Train

Memorial Jazz students to play with pros, play at NY festival

Abi Zimmer |

The night was dark and cold, a Friday nonetheless and nearing dinnertime, when Memorial High School band director Bruce Hering walked into his classroom for pep band and instead found the brass section of his Jazz 1 having a rehearsal without him. They were intent and focused, determined to train the music into their fingers.

Because of such dedication among all 24 students, Memorial’s Jazz Ensemble one is now one of 15 high school bands going to New York City May 13-18 to compete in the 13th annual Essentially Ellington high school jazz band competition and festival.

“With this particular group of students, there are no obstacles,” says Hering, who has entered Jazz 1 annually since 1999. This is the fifth year MHS has been selected as finalists. “I have to be careful what I ask them to do because they do it.”

Essentially Ellington is a festival started by trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, who wanted to reintroduce Duke Ellington to young musicians. Last October, the Lincoln Center released six new Ellington scores and sent them to 900 schools nationwide. Jazz 1 picked three of those songs and set to work making them their own, needing to stand apart.

“You have to immerse yourself in this music, understand it at a deeper level,” says Hering of their challenge. “It’s meant to paint a picture.” The second tune they chose, called “Half the Fun,” is about the legendary Cleopatra seducing Antony. “It’s a piece of history. Very exotic, Egyptian, ethereal.”

The students listened to the music over and over, having what many jazz bands don’t have: a flute. “We had to ask ourselves, “If Duke Ellington had a flute in his band, what would he do with it?” Jazz 1 decided solos. “Half the Fun,” with its ethereal sound, begins with student Cheng Cheng on the flute. While other instruments gradually join in, the flute continues to flow over everything.

This rendition worried Hering the most: “It was kind of a big risk.” Yet the judges listening to their CD rewarded their risks with high scores of 147/150. “In this competition, the students are literally at a professional level,” says Hering. “Sometimes I’m not sure I’m qualified to play in this band.”

So, after months of rehearsing, recording, and four weeks of an agonizing wait, Jazz 1 is going to New York. Their next step? Still practicing. Not only does the band need to keep their tunes polished, they must also learn a third song for the competition, one that specifically features the trumpet in case they place in the top three and can perform at the Lincoln Center alongside Wynton Marsalis.

Jazz 1 also needs to raise funds and for this, they are humbled by the Valley’s generosity. Marsalis calls MHS the “$25,000 band” because they are one of the few schools entirely supported by their community. Quite a few times, MHS has traveled to the festival without students needing to pay anything. Keep an eye out for opportunities to hear and support top-notch jazz.