The South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble vies for a slot at Monterey

The Monterey Jazz Festival is a bit like the Olympics of the jazz world. Begun in 1958, it is the longest- running jazz festival in the world and considered the best.

South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble members Seth Sobottka on French horn and Casey Fate and Liana Cave on trombone swing

South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble members Seth Sobottka on French horn and Casey Fate and Liana Cave on trombone swing

The Monterey Jazz Festival is a bit like the Olympics of the jazz world.

Begun in 1958, it is the longest- running jazz festival in the world and considered the best.

The South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble will get the chance to appear at that famous festival depending upon how well they play in Monterey, Calif. next week. The goal is to be one of the top three big bands.

The South Whidbey contingent is one of 12 high school jazz bands that has been invited to compete in the big band category of the Next Generation Festival Jazz Competition, April 3 to April 5 in downtown Monterey.

The weekend event, devoted to the future of jazz, includes competitions between big bands, smaller jazz combos, vocal ensembles and individual musicians vying for a spot on the stages of the 52nd Annual Monterey Jazz Festival in September.

Next Generation finalists are selected through recorded auditions by faculty from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. The folks there listened to more than 100 recorded entries, and South Whidbey made the cut.

Band director Chris Harshman is lauded by community members for being the reason why the jazz students in a small school such as South Whidbey play so well.

He’s demonstrated his knack for teaching the students how to swing more than once, including directing last year’s ensemble that made it to Lincoln Center in New York City where it won a spot in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival.

The current ensemble recently displayed its jazz panache at the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival in Idaho this past February where members picked up first place in their division along with a handful of solo awards.

Asked how one prepares a group of young musicians for such daunting challenges, Harshman was confident and unruffled.

“We have some incredible talent, and the seniors have demonstrated a great deal of leadership in our preparation for Monterey,” Harshman said.

“We prepare several styles of music and have to be ready to sight-read,” he said.

“We’re preparing a Duke Ellington piece, as well as a very contemporary arrangement of another Ellington tune entitled ‘Cotton Tail.’”

Harshman said this year’s band has taken up the standard of excellence established by last year’s group.

“The band has become increasingly consistent, and though we have work left to do, our concepts are solid and the band is hungry to swing!”

While in Monterey, some of the students will audition for the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, a program that selects the best and brightest high school jazz musicians in the country who go on to study the most challenging big band music and perform on tour internationally.

All the students will also be a part of the clinics, workshops and jam sessions that take place in the heart of the historic California town, with music to be performed at the Monterey Conference Center, the Portola Plaza Hotel, at Fisherman’s Wharf, the famous Cannery Row and at the arts venue Monterey Live.

“Our timing couldn’t be more perfect for this festival, as our soloists are digging in and making a profound impact on our performance,” Harshman said.

“I think we have a great program chosen and are playing to our strengths in the rhythm section and as an ensemble.”

The 21 musicians of the South Whidbey High School Jazz Ensemble fly to California Friday, April 3 and return Monday, April 6.

Funds are still needed to cover expenses for the trip.

The South Whidbey Schools Foundation has set up a special account for the jazz ensemble. Anyone can help by making a tax deductible donation with a check payable to the “South Whidbey Schools Foundation.” Mail it to: SWSF, PO Box 24, Freeland, WA 98249. Checks should be earmarked for SWHS Jazz Ensemble.

Now you can hear the ensemble on a CD if you pick up KPLU radio’s “School of Jazz Volume 5” recorded with professional trumpeter Lance Buller.

The CD release party is May 17 and the CD will be available through the South Whidbey High School band program.

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