Jazz Ensemble sweeps awards at national competition

by Jaesuh Lee, News Editor
photos by Becky Dozortzev

The Jazz Ensemble ended this year on a high note as they were chosen to be one of 15 finalists in Essentially Ellington, a jazz competition hosted by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York. High school ensembles from around the country submitted recordings of pieces by legendary jazz pianist Duke Ellington to compete for one of the finalist spots. 

Typically, those finalists would travel to New York City in June to perform in the finals in front of world-class musicians like Wynton Marsalis; due to the unique nature of this year, finalist ensembles participated in the event in a virtual format. 

South’s strong performance was reflected in the many awards they received. Outstanding Trombone Section, Outstanding Trumpet Section, Outstanding Rhythm Section, Outstanding Bass: Jude Seiner, Outstanding Alto Saxophone: Jackson Nessin-Perna, Outstanding Tenor Saxophone: Aidan Higgins, Outstanding Baritone Saxophone: Coleman Stanton.

Jazz Ensemble pose in their Essentially Ellington shirts

The Jazz Ensemble encountered numerous challenges due to changes amplified by the pandemic, band director Lisa Linde said. She said that it was particularly challenging to get the group properly prepared for their recording session. Although they were preparing just one piece, Sugar Hill Penthouse, for their preliminary entry, constant alterations left them on a tight schedule, Linde said.

“First we were rehearsing outside, then we were fully remote, then we finally got to be inside, but we had six rehearsals to put it together,” she said. “There were a lot of sudden changes.”

To fulfill the final round’s submission requirement of two contrasting pieces, the Jazz Ensemble chose to submit a recording of Jack the Bear and a re-recording of Sugar Hill Penthouse.

Sophomore Yuao Zhou said that stress levels ran high among the players as all were motivated to perform well in one of the most prestigious jazz competitions in the country.

“I worried that if I played something wrong, then I’d ruin the whole recording,” he said.

The pressure junior Brian Gomez said he had initially felt was overcome through practicing and the help of his bandmates.  

The ensemble’s camaraderie not only helped to relieve members’ stress, but also allowed players to easily play together. It was crucial to their collective success, and they built friendships in various ways throughout the years, sophomore Kenny Lee said.

“Chemistry is important whether it’s at the workplace or sports. In the past, we built that by going on trips to New Orleans, Panama and doing charity concerts together,” he said. “Lately, we’ve bonded in smaller settings like during sectionals or during rehearsal breaks.”

Sophomores Kenny Lee and Ethan Pang (right) warm up before recording

Personally getting to know the players in his rhythm section helped strengthen all of their performances, sophomore Jaray Liu said.

“I got familiar with their style of playing, and I knew how they played: what their strengths were and what their weaknesses were, and we were able to make up for each other’s weaknesses and play really well,” he said.

Senior Coleman Stanton said that after all their hard work, the Jazz Ensemble had a shared moment of excitement upon hearing news of their selection. Given the atypical challenges brought on by this year, freshman Jared Wang said it was rewarding to see the ensemble’s work pay off.

“Because of the pandemic, we put in more work than we usually do, and it’s exciting that we got in,” he said.

Senior David Kim, who had previously been to Ellington during his freshman year, said he anticipates that this achievement this year will motivate the group to continue to work hard.

“It meant a lot more to me that the people who hadn’t been before would be able to go than it did for me to go as a senior,” he said. “I’m hopeful that this accomplishment will help propel the band forward in future years.”