- Merrill Elementary
Beloit Memorial Jazz Orchestra to Compete at Essentially Ellington Jazz Comptetion
The Beloit Memorial High School Jazz Orchestra will perform this week at one of the most prestigious high school music concerts in the U.S.
The band will perform at the Essentially Ellington Jazz Competition for the 11th time in the last 15 years, all under band director Chris Behrens. The festival, which will be in its 28th installment, starts Thursday and continues through Saturday at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall. The band is one of 15 in the nation to earn a spot in the competition.
Band director Chris Behrens said he is excited to go back.
There is a catalog of songs the festival has that dates back eight years that bands can choose from. From that, bands can choose one song to play. Then, there is a new list of an additional eight songs that bands choose a song to play. Then bands can select two more songs of their choosing in the past 20 years.
“So you can really select songs that fit to your bands strengths, and that’s the key,” Behrens said.
Bands also face the challenge of setting themselves apart from others by making music their own.
“They don’t want you to take an arrangement and play it note for note. They want you to recreate it so that it is unique to your own ensemble,” Behrens said.
The band has been working on “Just Scratchin’ the Surface” by Duke Ellington, “Stablemates” by Benny Golson and “Liza” by George Gershwin, but it was originally done by the Chick Webb Orchestra.
“Chick Webb was one of the greatest drummers in the history of the world and we happen to have a really great drummer,” Behrens said.
“Stablemates” was originally featured in the Dizzy Gillespie Band and was a trumpet feature, but there was a desire to highlight other strengths of Beloit’s orchestra.
“What we did to make that arrangement to make it unique is to make that into a rhythm section that features our piano player, our bassist and drummer,” Behrens said.
The band performed at Essentially Ellington last year as well. Senior Abigail Grenawalt, a senior who plays the trumpet, said she enjoyed the experience last year.
“It’s really exciting because you get to meet a bunch of new people and it’s New York City so it’s a bunch of cool experiences. And, you get to hang out with a bunch of musicians from across the country so it’s a really great experience,” Grenawalt said.
“I think I was too nervous to remember anything. I don’t remember going up on stage. I actually ended up dropping my mute in the middle of the performance because I was so nervous,” Grenawalt said. “But I think it’ll be good this year. I think I’ll remember.”
That was a feeling that senior drummer Jonathan Garrett had to get over also.
“It’s nerve wracking, but it’s very fun because you get to show how much you’ve put in all year,” Garrett said.
Annette Cortez, a junior who plays tenor saxophone, will get to go to the competition for the first time.
“I’m looking forward to everything. It all seems so exciting. It seems so unreal but I’m super grateful for the opportunity and just ready to enjoy every second of it,” Cortez said.
The work put in to get to Essentially Ellington started before the audition tape was submitted in January. The work has been a year-round endeavor.
The band practices in class and at rehearsals, but students also take time out outside of school. The band plays at least once a month at Grand Avenue Pub. Students also play at other events like fundraisers and chamber of commerce events.
Cortez said it can be stressful and hard to balance jazz with schoolwork and other school activities.
“It’s a need to maintain that balance, but in the end that process is worth it so you just have to keep at it,” Cortez said.
Beloit Memorial has one of two Wisconsin-based orchestras performing in the festival. The Sun Prairie Jazz Ensemble will also perform in the competition.
Through several fundraisers since February, like a concert at The Eclipse Center on April 23, the band was able to raise $15,000 that will go entirely toward costs associated with going to New York City and performing.
“It’s difficult music. It’s written for some of the greatest musicians in the entire world. These are not professional jazz musicians. These are high school musicians,” Behrens said. “I would prefer them practicing their music.”
As a part of the festival, students will also participate in jam sessions and workshops with members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.