Three Madison-area high school jazz groups are finalists in national competition

Groups from Sun Prairie, Middleton, Beloit go to New York
Photo courtesy of Steve Sveum
Jazz musicians from Sun Prairie High School participate in a jam session at Lincoln Center in 2018 as finalists in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Competition. The SPHS Jazz Ensemble will return to New York in May after being selected as a finalist again.

Three area high school jazz groups learned this week that they are heading to New York City in May as finalists in a competition to perform alongside the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, led by acclaimed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Among a group of 112 student jazz orchestras nationwide who submitted recordings, the Middleton, Sun Prairie and Beloit high school ensembles were among the 15 finalists of the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Orchestra Competition. The groups will travel to the Big Apple where the top three will be selected to perform in a concert on May 11 at the end of the three-day event.

The conductors of the three schools are delighted.

This will be the 13th trip to New York City as a finalist in the Essentially Ellington competition for the much-vaunted Sun Prairie High School Jazz Band program, conducted by Steve Sveum.

“It is an honor to be chosen for this event,” he said. “Each year brings a life-changing experience for the students involved. We are proud to be one of those chosen to participate. It’s such a supportive, respectful and welcoming community – I can’t wait for our students to be a part of it.

On three occasions – in 1998, 2004 and 2008 – the musicians of the SPHS have finished in the top three of the competition.

“We played with [Marsalis] three times at the festival, always to a standing ovation – Wynton for that purpose, ”said Sveum, adding that each of those concerts in“ The House of Swing ”at Lincoln Center were sold out.
Three Madison-area high school jazz groups are finalists in national competition

Sveum also remembers Marsalis in 1998 inviting the jazz band SPHS to a clinic in Chicago to show other band directors how to teach Duke Ellington’s music. The band performed with Marsalis for two and a half hours.

“It was awesome,” says Sveum.

Chris Behrens, director of the Beloit Memorial Jazz Orchestra, hopes his students will also take top honors in the competition, improving their fourth place last year. This will be the eighth time the ensemble has been a finalist in the past 11 years.

“The students have worked extremely hard this year to earn this honor. Obviously, I am very proud of their accomplishment, ”said Behrens. “We still have a very experienced group this year and we hope to match or improve our honorable mention in 2018.”

Sveum also said that the members of his group have proven to be some of the most talented young jazz musicians in the country.

“It has been inspiring to see this group grow to this point this year,” said Sveum. “Students transcribe solos, work on improvisation, learn the social significance of this music, and scour the internet for professional recordings of the music they try to capture in spirit.”

In a press release, Middleton High School principal Steve Plank congratulated the 20 students of the school’s 7 O-Clock Jazz Band. “To be selected as one of the top 15 jazz ensembles in the country is an incredible achievement. It is also a wonderful learning opportunity for our students, ”writes Plank.

Doug Brown directs the Middleton High School jazz program.

“I am touched and honored by the opportunity that lies before us,” said Brown. “This festival will give our students a unique experience. I look forward to the wisdom shared by Wynton Marsalis and his colleagues at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, as I know it will help our students grow both as musicians and as human beings.

Brown credits “the countless hours spent by fellow music teachers, support staff and private instructors, community members, families and alumni who all helped usher in this year’s success.”

While in New York City, student jazz orchestras will participate in workshops, jam sessions and section competition.

Jazz fans in the Madison area have the opportunity this weekend to hear young local jazz musicians perform.

On Saturday, February 16, Sun Prairie High School hosts the Regional Essentially Ellington Sun Prairie JazzFest, which ends with a concert at 7 p.m. in the school’s Performing Arts Center. High school jazz orchestras from Sun Prairie, Mount Horeb, Waunakee, Columbus, West DePere as well as overseas ensembles from Dunlap, Indiana and Champaign, Illinois will perform.

More information about the annual jazz festival can be found here.

Joel Patenaude is associate editor of Madison Magazine.

Three Madison-area high school jazz groups are finalists in national competition

Ada J. Kenney