As finalists were being named for this year’s Essentially Ellington festival, members of Mount Si High School’s jazz band watched eagerly from their computers.
Away on mid-winter break, band members — perhaps fitting after two years of members frequently rehearsing virtually — joined together on a Zoom call.
“Every single band member joined the Zoom call, wherever they were,” said band director Bill Leather. “We all came together and that shows the dedication these students have to each other and this band.”
With everyone together, that’s where they learned that they were one of just 15 jazz bands in North America selected for the Essentially Ellington Festival.
Widely considered the “Super Bowl” of high school jazz, Essentially Ellington selects the 15 best bands in the United States and Canada through a blind audition that involves each band submitting three songs. Those 15 bands will compete in front of judges between May 5-7 at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
All three of this year’s representatives from region one — which includes 11 states and six Canadian Provinces — are from Washington. Mount Si will be joined by Bothell High School and Roosevelt High School.
This will be the seventh time since 2014 that Mount Si has been selected, having last been selected in 2020, when the festival was held virtually.
Sam Chen, a senior trombonist who has been playing since he was in the fifth grade, was part of that band in 2020 and said he was excited to get a chance to attend the festival in person.
“It was as good as we could get given the situation,” Chen said of the 2020 festival.
“Now it’s a lot different,” he said. “In addition to just getting to go, it’s making up for missing time. It’s twice the excitement.”
Junior Mariel Nolan, who plays saxophone, said she’s excited to get to interact with other bands again, something they haven’t done much of during the pandemic. She also said she is excited to perform on a big stage again after spending so long in a virtual environment.
“It’s a big deal. It matters a lot to all of us,” she said. “I love jazz because I love playing with other people and I love the environment of the big band. Online and at home in your room, it’s just not the same, and I’m so glad to be back.”
Junior Ali Jaffery, who also plays saxophone, said he’s been looking forward to going to Ellington and being part of Mount Si’s jazz band since he first saw Mount Si perform in the seventh grade. He also has been looking forward to a chance to play in person again.
“This year has been pretty hard, there’s no sugar-coating it,” he said. “Being able to go to New York and do what I love and be with the people I most enjoy spending time with and not taking it for granted — that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Band director Leather is looking forward to seeing his students put all their hard work together on the stage. He’s also hoping to watch their reactions when they walk in.
“The first time the students get to go into the hall where we’ll be performing in and get to see the Jazz Ellington Center Orchestra,” he said. “I’m gonna try to look at their faces to see what their reactions are like.”
For him, the band’s success is simply a testament to the students’ dedication and willingness to work hard.
“They have been through a lot the last couple years,” he said. “But they were able to come back and decide as a group they really wanted to do this again and they know it’s not a guarantee.”
None of the band members were able to say what makes them stand out compared to the other bands, but they were all quick to point out how tight-knit their group is.
“I don’t know if there’s one definitive trait that sets Mount Si apart,” Chen said. “But one thing I am pretty proud of is the connection we all have. Having that connection is pretty unique.”