Jazz group MSHS among the finalists of the prestigious “Essentially Ellington” festival

As the finalists were named for this year’s Essentially Ellington festival, members of Mount Si High School’s jazz band watched eagerly from their computers.

In the midst of winter vacation, the band members — perhaps appropriate after two years of frequent virtual rehearsals — reunited on a Zoom call.

“Every member of the group has joined the Zoom call, wherever they are,” said group manager Bill Leather. “We all came together and it shows the dedication these students have to each other and to this group.”

With everyone together, it was there that they learned that they were one of 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 top 15 bands from the United States and Canada through a blind audition in which each band submits three songs. These 15 groups will face off in front of judges from May 5-7 at Lincoln Center in New York City.

This year’s three representatives from the first region – 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 fifth grade, was part of this group in 2020 and said he was delighted to have the chance to attend the festival in person.

“It was as good as it gets given the situation,” Chen said of the 2020 festival.

“Now it’s very different,” he said. “In addition to going there, it’s making up for lost time. It’s twice as exciting.

Junior Mariel Nolan, who plays saxophone, said she was thrilled to be able to interact with other bands again, which they haven’t been doing much during the pandemic. She also said she was thrilled to be performing on a big stage again after spending so long in a virtual environment.

” It’s a big problem. It means a lot to all of us,” she said. “I like jazz because I like playing with other people and I like the big band environment. Online and at home in your bedroom, it’s just not the same thing, and I’m so glad to be back.

Junior Ali Jaffery, who also plays saxophone, said he has been looking forward to going to Ellington and being part of Mount Si’s jazz band since he first saw Mount Si perform in seventh grade . He is also looking forward to a chance to play in person again.

“This year has been pretty tough, there’s no sugar coating,” he said. “Being able to go to New York and do what I love and be with the people I love spending time with the most and not take it for granted – that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

The Leather band manager can’t wait to see his students put all their hard work on stage. He also hopes to observe their reactions when they enter.

“The first time, students can walk into the room where we’re going to play and see the Ellington Center Jazz Orchestra,” he said. “I’ll try to watch their faces to see what their reactions are.”

For him, the group’s success is simply a testament to the students’ dedication and willingness to work hard.

“They’ve been through a lot in the last few years,” he said. “But they were able to come back and decide as a group that they really wanted to do it again and they know that’s not a guarantee.”

None of the group members were able to say what sets them apart from other groups, but they were all quick to point out how tight-knit their group was.

“I don’t know if there’s a definitive feature that sets Mount Si apart,” Chen said. “But one thing I’m pretty proud of is the connection we all have. Having this connection is quite unique.

Bill Leather, director of the Mount Si High School jazz band. Photo Conor Wilson Valley Record.

Mount Si senior Sam Chen, trombonist in the high school jazz band.  Photo Conor Wilson/Valley Recording.

Mount Si senior Sam Chen, trombonist in the high school jazz band. Photo Conor Wilson/Valley Recording.

Mount Si juniors Mariel Nolan (l) and Ali Jaffery.  The two saxophonists of the high school jazz band.  Photo Conor Wilson/Valley Recording.

Mount Si juniors Mariel Nolan (l) and Ali Jaffery. The two saxophonists of the high school jazz band. Photo Conor Wilson/Valley Recording.


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Henry R. Wright