‘These guys don’t look like high school kids’: Denver jazz band moves on to national competition


Twenty teenagers tap their feet, dance to the beat and play music written 60 years before they were born.

These students are part of a jazz group from the Denver School of the Arts that was chosen to participate in the Essentially Ellington competition in New York. Fifteen bands were chosen from over 100 high school bands from across the United States to perform in front of modern jazz legends.

Bands from the Denver School of the Arts have qualified for the competition three times before, according to band manager Dave Hammond, who has been teaching young musicians jazz for more than two decades. But Hammond said this year’s students are the best he has heard.

“Whenever I hear the band, I’m often like, ‘Oh my God, these guys don’t sound like high school kids,'” Hammond said. “I have so [students] who are improvising at a professional level right now.

The competition is named after Duke Ellington, one of the most influential American jazz composers and musicians in history. It is run by Wynton Marsalis, another jazz legend, and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Many students in the band came to school as middle schoolers and have been studying their instruments for years.

“For a lot of them, they’re old people and that’s the culmination of a seven-year period,” Hammond said. “Our program is like a conservatory that ensures students approach their music and studies with rigor, enthusiasm, and blue-collar hard work.”

Students love jazz for the effect it has on them and their audiences, said Jack Bendure, a senior who has been playing trombone for 5 years.

“It’s a healing force,” he says. “That’s life. Every day it goes through my head.”

According to Hammond, the roots of jazz are as important to teach as its sound.

“If I were the head of education in the United States, I would make sure every school had a jazz band to teach this hugely important story,” he said. “I think a lot of kids have lost sight of what the African-American experience has to offer all of us when we think about the general oppression of a people, the loosening of that oppression, and the rise of a people. That’s what Duke Ellington’s music is about.

Bendure accepted.

“Everyone who’s done it in the past has led us to do it right now, and in the future we’ll be just another one of those people,” he said.

The National Jazz Competition can also be a resume booster for students who want to become professional musicians.

“I’m really looking forward to being able to take inspiration from the other great players who will be there,” said senior D’Marco Martinez, who plays bass in the band. He will attend Berklee College of Music in Boston next year. “I want to be in a big band one day.”

The students prepared three songs for the competition, including a piece by Duke Ellington called “Solid Old Man” from the 1940s.

“I tell the kids, ‘That’s 18 minutes of fame and that’s all you get,'” Hammond said. “In these 18 minutes, we have to show that the Denver School of the Arts is playing it stylistically right, that there’s a lot of energy in the music, and that there’s been a lot of historical and cultural study. “

The winners will be announced on Saturday. If the Denver group is among the winners, they can have dinner with some of their idols, members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Artists.

Update 5/14: Jazz group DSA did not make the top 3 in the Essentially Ellington Contest in New York.

“They did extremely well,” Hammond said. “They were disappointed for about 32 seconds. The workshops, the music, the networking and the New York experience was exciting for them.”

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Henry R. Wright