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Tackling nerves and new music, Garfield Jazz makes the final sprint to Essentially Ellington

Young adults dressed in black play various instruments seated in rows with music stands.
Garfield Jazz Foundation
Garfield High School Jazz I performs at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, April 20, 2024. Junior Wren McIntosh plays baritone saxophone in the front row, far right.

On an overcast April day just after spring break, Garfield High School's Jazz Band I rehearsed feverishly for Essentially Ellington, a national high school jazz band competition taking place May 9-11 in New York City. They’ve been preparing nearly the entire school year for this prestigious event, now less than three weeks away.

Students were a bundle of nerves as they spoke to KNKX. They earned their place in the competition with three arrangements of Duke Ellington songs, which they painstakingly prepared for their audition recording in January. But soon after qualifying, they discovered that two other local schools attending the competition, Bothell High School and Roosevelt High School, were planning to perform some of the same material.

“Each of the two [other bands] would’ve potentially played a song that we already were playing,” said Garfield’s Director of Bands Jared Sessink. “And then it turned into: Do we really think this tune that we're doing is really showcasing us in the best light? And then we changed in part because of that.”

Feeling the heat

In late February, Jazz I committed to learning two new charts for their performance at the event that was now less than three months away. While the students supported the repertoire change, it added more pressure to the process of preparing for Ellington. In part because Sessink is pushing them to memorize the charts for their performance, which encourages students to play more expressively.

Likewise, it’s already a really busy time. When KNKX visited the band room, all three of Garfield’s jazz bands were about to embark on a charter bus to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho. Held April 17-20, the large regional jazz festival, which features over 400 student performances, came three weeks ahead of Ellington. Sessink urged Jazz I to use it as a deadline for having their new Ellington set mostly memorized.

“I'm mostly nervous for the memorization part of the music,” said Wren McIntosh, a baritone saxophonist and junior. “Yeah, it's just hard because some of the parts I’s just not even close to the melody.”

To learn their competition repertoire inside and out, McIntosh, also a track athlete, started listening to other high school and college band versions of the songs while at home or on the bus traveling to and from track meets. This routine, as well as extra band rehearsals in the evenings and some early mornings, helped calm her worries. But when her bandmates are on edge, the nervousness pipes up again.

“I know some people get really nervous because they have a solo or some people just get stage fright. So, mostly controlling nerves and making sure that the nerves don't get to us when we're on stage,” McIntosh said.

A teenager in a black suit plays trumpet in front of a piano and vibraphone.
Garfield Jazz Foundation
Junior Timothy Park steps up as a soloist during one of Garfield Jazz I's songs at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, April 20, 2024.

Trumpeter Timothy Park, a junior, is one soloist who’s feeling the heat. One of the three songs Jazz I will perform in New York City features Park carrying a bluesy, call-and-response melody.

“Yeah, it's nerve-wracking...I have a responsibility to play as a soloist,” Park said.

The young musicians in Jazz I are also thrilled about the chance to attend the festival and explore New York. For alto saxophonist Tuuli Walton, a senior, the elation of meeting a goal overpowers any nerves.

“Ever since I was a freshman, I've been like, ‘I want to get to New York...for Ellington.’ It’s like, my thing. I'm just really glad that I got the chance to go [and] that I made it into Jazz I last year, because it was definitely a goal of mine,” Walton said.

A new Jazz I lineup

As the students face the musical challenge of competing in this prestigious event, Sessink is also imparting lessons about community building and emotional awareness. For example, this year’s Jazz I has dealt with the vacuum left when skilled seniors graduated.

Last year, nearly half of the Jazz I band were seniors. Many of them had studied with Sessink since Washington Middle School, where Sessink taught until 2019. Having played together for six years straight, the class of 2023 jazz kids were a tight and influential bunch.

As a result, some members of this year’s Jazz I, which is two-thirds underclassmen, have felt a loss of energy and community since last year. Sessink sensed that too, and has focused considerable attention on helping this year's group foster their own identity and confidence.

For instance, he showed them a picture from Jazz I’s trip to Ellington last year in hopes it might inspire more camaraderie. In the photo, the students formed a big huddle, arms around each other.

“I told the band that it was heartwarming to see," Sessink said. "Everyone is all huddled together and they're just talking. They're just talking something out. And I told them like, 'don't wait until we're there to, start that coming together."

Fright and excitement

Students said Sessink encourages community building by urging them to communicate openly and kindly, share supportive comments, and do activities together outside of class. The students have also been learning some strategies to reframe their stage fright, which McIntosh put into practice during Jazz I’s appearance at Starbucks 27th Annual Hot Java Cool Jazz on March 29.

“Sessink is always like, ‘separate nerves from excitement.’ So, when I was behind on stage for Hot Java [I] was like, ‘I'm so nervous. Okay, wait, am I nervous? Or am I excited? And I was like, I'm kind of both.’ Then you have to lean in more to the excited part of it,” McIntosh said.

In mid-April, Jazz I also got the chance to work on the details of their Ellington set with lauded jazz trumpeter, Pharez Whitted. Ahead of the competition, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the organization that presents Ellington, sent Whitted to visit Garfield, Roosevelt, and Bothell high schools and lead 4-hour clinics for each band.

The students of Garfield’s Jazz I found their clinic valuable. Park said that’s because Whitted emphasized “what the music means beyond the paper.”

Whitted also shared some of the history of Ellington’s music, and then listened to Jazz I perform, interjecting ideas and suggestions along the way. His positivity and passion boosted the band’s confidence.

“He was giving us a lot of pep talks,” Walton said. “Being a mentor, not only in just the musical way, but also in the mental and emotional way of what it's like to play on stage.”

Regardless of how they do in the competition, there’s much to be excited about. Sessink and the Garfield Jazz Foundation, the band’s parent-run booster group, have put together a stacked itinerary for the students during their five-day stay in New York.

When they’re not enjoying their Manhattan hotel, students will attend some curated group activities, including a taco-catered boat tour that passes by the Statue of Liberty.

They will also have self-directed time to take the subways, visit museums and historical sites, go to a jazz club, or just explore with a small group of peers — up until their curfew. Ahead of the competition, there’s a banquet dinner for all members of the competing bands and a private Q&A session with jazz luminary Wynton Marsalis.

Until then, the kids will be readying themselves musically and mentally for the stage.

“I'm probably gonna be nervous,” McIntosh said. “It's like, we've been preparing for this for almost the entire year. And now we're here and it's just like, 'Oh, like, what? What now? We have to play now.'”

The 2024 Essentially Ellington Competition begins at 2 p.m. EST on Friday, May 10 and Garfield Jazz I will be the second band to perform in front of the adjudicators.

For those who’d like to catch the performance, all Essentially Ellington events will stream live on Jazz Live, and the videos will also be accessible after they stream.

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.