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After intense audition process, Garfield Jazz qualifies as Essentially Ellington finalist

Garfield Jazz performs at a the first annual Clarence Acox Gala at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley on Feb. 5, 2024.
Garfield Jazz Foundation
Garfield Jazz performs at a the first annual Clarence Acox Gala at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley on Feb. 5, 2024.

“Do we have imagery for this song?” asked one young member of Garfield High School's Jazz Ensemble I.

It’s Saturday, January 20, and the band just finished a run-through of an audition piece for the 2024 Essentially Ellington competition on stage in the school auditorium.

“I see a woman in a mink coat with a puppy,” another band member replied.

This isn’t teenage silliness. Visualization increases the connection between the music and what the listener experiences, said Jared Sessink, director of bands at Garfield High School. This technique has been shown to enhance performance on-stage and on the sports field.

There was no better time to apply this technique than on this particular Saturday, the longest of four consecutive days Garfield Jazz I spent recording their audition. From 1 p.m. until about 8:30 p.m., the band refined their parts, polished their section sound, and recorded takes of three Duke Ellington songs selected based on the competition’s strict criteria.

This Wednesday, on Valentine’s Day, the ensemble found out that they’d done enough: They are one of 15 finalist bands, including the jazz bands at nearby Roosevelt High School and Bothell High School, chosen to compete at Essentially Ellington, taking place May 9-11 in New York City. This year’s competition will also celebrate what would have been Duke Ellington’s 125th birthday.

Getting into the selective competition is the culmination of several arduous months spent learning this jazz progenitor’s music, some of which is challenging for even the most seasoned jazz musicians. And yet, during the audition process, the members of Garfield Jazz I — positioned on the Quincy Jones Auditorium stage in three rows, with the piano, bass, and drums off to the side — appeared loose and confident. A couple kids even donned pajama pants.

Sessink seemed equally relaxed. When he wasn’t working with the students, he was standing at the front of the stage, listening to their last take in his headphones and adjusting nobs on a small recording device.

“I think we can get a take without cracks,” said Sessink, looking up at the five-person trumpet section. He wanted a clean, strong sound for the beginning of the tune. After a couple run-throughs, Sessink asked Timothy Park, a trumpet player and one of the band’s co-managers, to take the trumpets out into the auditorium lobby to tighten up the opening.

There was a lot of down time for the students during the audition process. With the trumpets gone, Sessink workshopped a section with the saxophones while other band members sat quietly or snacked on the Krispy Kreme donuts and chips left on the long table backstage.

Bands are limited to 25 musicians at the competition and Garfield Jazz I, the “varsity” band in the school’s three-band jazz program, uses every spot. To give as many kids as possible the chance to participate, certain students were assigned to some, but not all, of the audition songs.

For example, three piano players, two drummers, two bassists, as well as some additional horn players, participated in this year’s Ellington auditions, each responsible for specific songs. When their songs weren’t the focus of the audition recording session, they sat in the auditorium audience or just offstage, scrolling on their phones, doing homework, or playing a makeshift basketball game with a trashcan.

Whenever it was their time to play, though, the kids concentrated on the music. They discussed the idea of “flow state,” or a creative state in which everything comes together smoothly, and what sections they thought needed more refining. They asked each other about articulations and intonation, and then looked to Sessink to decide when the band sounded ready enough to record a take. At that point, Sessink would press a button, say “Mics are hot,” and count them in.

The students who spoke with KNKX felt positive about how the audition was going, and about their chances of getting into the competition. It helped they’d had a chance to perform the audition music for a live audience a few days earlier.

“It’s been tight,” said Bolan Delange, a junior who plays drums. “I feel like the main reason why is because we had the pressure of performing all this live at the Royal Room Tuesday ...whenever we play there, it's like a confidence boost.”

After about three weeks of deliberations, Essentially Ellington organizers announced the finalists for the competition in a video announcement on Wednesday morning. The members of Garfield Jazz I left first period early so they could gather and hear the announcement together. A video posted to the Garfield High School Jazz Instagram shows their elation upon learning about their acceptance.

“I feel really proud of everyone in the band. I think everyone's excited and proud of themselves,” said Cyrus Edwards, a senior who plays bass.

Edwards attended Essentially Ellington with the band last year and enjoyed meeting all the other high school musicians from across the country. He also found that the experience helped deepen relationships within Garfield Jazz I.

Student musicians dressed in black on a stage with an "Essentially Ellington" sign in the background.
Garfield Jazz Foundation
Led by Band Director Jared Sessink, Garfield High School's Jazz I Ensemble competes at the 2023 Essentially Ellington competition in New York City. This year will be the program's 19th appearance as a finalist.

In terms of the competition aspect, Edwards prefers not to put emphasis on placing in the top three, something that Garfield Jazz I has achieved seven times previously. In fact, after the Wednesday video announcement, he said the band had a discussion about what they should prioritize during their trip to Essentially Ellington this year.

“I think that being a finalist at Ellington would be incredible, and definitely really fun. But I'd rather make sure that we all have a good time,” Edwards said. “But it seems like, yeah, a lot of people [in the band] are in the middle. Like, we want to have as much fun as we can while still sounding as good as we can.”

It takes a fair amount of funding and coordination to take 25 kids, as well as chaperones and teachers, to New York City. That’s where the Garfield Jazz Foundation comes in. Long before they know what competitions the band will be participating in that year, this parent booster group has coordinated fundraising events – like an event at Chuck’s Hop Shop last December – for just this sort of opportunity.

According to Jon Strickland, president of the Garfield Jazz Foundation, the cost of each student’s trip to New York will be taken on by their families, if feasible. If not, the foundation provides financial assistance to any family who needs it. They also take on the booking of the plane tickets and hotel, plan and fund additional activities in New York City, coordinate and pay the chaperones selected for the trip, among other duties.

With the trip’s logistical planning already well underway, Garfield Jazz I will spend April buckling down on the set of music they’ll play for Essentially Ellington, which may or may not include the songs they auditioned with.

Before that though, they will work on a 20-minute set of entirely new music for Starbucks’ 27th Annual Hot Java Cool Jazz. Featuring five of the Seattle-area’s best high school jazz bands, Garfield will play alongside jazz bands from Roosevelt, Mountlake Terrace, Mt. Si, and Edmonds-Woodway High Schools on March 29 at Paramount Theatre.

Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.