Fundraising begins for Mount Si's prestigious Essentially Ellington New York trip

Conductor Matt Wenman directs his Jazz Band 1 to add a stinger at the end of a tune, during the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation. - Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo
Conductor Matt Wenman directs his Jazz Band 1 to add a stinger at the end of a tune, during the Snoqualmie Valley Schools Foundation.
— image credit: Carol Ladwig/Staff Photo

Essentially Ellington, the high school jazz festival hosted annually by Jazz at Lincoln Center, is “an amazing program, educationally,” says Matt Wenman, band director at Mount Si High School.

He could be talking about the three-day workshop that draws thousands of bands from across the country, or maybe the culminating competition among the most elite bands in the country. Then again, he’s equally likely to be talking about the months of extra effort that his 20-member Jazz I band put into their training this year, just to audition for the competition.

“We started working on the music, right at the beginning of the year,” Wenman said. Well, right after the students decided that they truly wanted to try.

“I essentially gave the students a kind of proposal,” Wenman said. “If you really want to do this, we’re going to really throw ourselves into it… so that without a doubt our audition is the best we could possibly have done.”

Wenman asked the group to think about the commitment, including the extra rehearsals, the early mornings, the late nights, and the things they might  miss while practicing.

He also insisted on a unanimous decision.

“I’d said if one person doesn’t want to do this, we won’t do this,” he said. “We took an anonymous vote the next week, and everybody was in.”

On Feb. 18, Mount Si was named an Essentially Ellington finalist, one of 15 bands to perform in the final competition of the festival, May 11. The hard work has paid off, Wenman said, but not just because of the festival.

“It’s so selective and it’s so hard to get in… if you make the whole process about just being accepted, you potentially lose out on a lot of the value in the journey and the process,” Wenman said.

Instead, he made it about the learning, and about the students’ own growth. They spent hours going through the Essentially Ellington library to choose  compositions that emphasized the band’s strengths -- “I picked things that I thought would showcase the band as a whole, playing pretty tight, our strong rhythm section, a lot of good horns” — and even more hours rehearsing them.

“It was just a process. We kept going and going. We just dug in as deep as we could,” Wenman said. “Every once in a while I would stop and say ‘You understand that you can really do this.’”

By the time the band made their audition recordings of “Sepia Panorama,” “Cotton Tail” and “Flirty Bird,” at Boxley’s Place Jan. 25, they did understand.

“When we got done with our audition, we felt really good about how we had done and where we had come from,” Wenman said.

They were anxious to find out if they’d been accepted, of course, but the band didn’t have time to wait for news. The group had to prepare for the Bellevue College Big Band Jazz Festival Feb. 8 (they finished third, behind Seattle’s Roosevelt and Garfield High Schools which were also selected for Essentially Ellington), a School of Jazz recording in March, the Jazz Northwest Festival March 22 in Spokane (first-place finishes for Jazz 1 and Jazz 2) and their annual fundraiser, Jazz at the Club, the weekend following Essentially Ellington.

Now they know, and the most difficult part may be behind them, but the hard work continues.

“The most competitive part of this is making it to Ellington and going to New York,” Wenman said. “At this point, our job is just to be the best artists that we can be… we have a lot more work to do to refine and develop and mature our sound.”

They also have some fundraising to do, work that the Mount Si Music Boosters have already begun. The boosters hope to raise $20,000 by the end of April for the band’s trip, and are offering a variety of incentives for donors, described in detail on To donate, send checks, marked “Ellington support” to MSHS Band Boosters, PO box 92, North Bend, WA 98045, or visit

Supporters can also help out by attending tonight’s Little Town Blues dinner fundraiser at Boxley’s Place. Cost is $50 per person, and all proceeds will go to support the band’s trip. Local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs will match the night’s  sales. 


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