A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is how many students describe their upcoming trip to New York City to Essentially Ellington, a jazz festival, and competition.
For trombone player Noah Guidry, it's more like a three-times-in-a-lifetime chance because Sun Prairie High School Jazz I has gone to New York every year he's participated. But Guidry is a senior, and this is his last shot.
"I know I'm not going to get this chance again," Guidry said. "There's no way I'm going to let this slip, though."
This is the fourth year in a row Sun Prairie High School's Jazz I has been selected for the prestigious competition, which only selects 15 jazz bands from around the country.
Essentially Ellington lasts three days. In the "House of Swing" -- also known as Jazz at Lincoln Center located inside the Time Warner Building -- students work with some of the top jazz musicians in the U.S. for rehearsals, jam sessions, and performances.
SPHS Jazz Director Steve Sveum said there's no guarantee Sun Prairie will continue to be selected every year.
"It's hard for me to impress on people . . . that you can't ever really expect that you will go back because the competition's getting so good and it's tough," he said.
Schools go through a blind audition process where they submit a recording to the festival. Sveum said Sun Prairie’s successes are more impressive considering that most of the other schools have dedicated jazz classes while Sun Prairie’s band rehearses before school.
The festival begins May 5, and Jazz I will have a final push to fundraise on Monday, May 2 with a send-off concert in the Performing Arts Center from 7:30-8:30 p.m. During the send-off concert, the band will play all three Essentially Ellington selections and additional songs.
The event will also include a raffle and silent auction for a private flight that the winner can request to take anywhere nearby – whether it's to have lunch with their aunt in Eau Claire, Sveum said, or to fly above the Capitol, which is what last year's winner requested.
Sveum said the festival gives students the incentive to work harder in their practicing.
“The point that we’re at right now, kids are deeper into learning their music than they would normally,” he said. “They know how great these bands are and to get a chance to try to reach that level and knowing that we’re in competition with the nation’s best tends to push you a little bit farther.”
And among the bands traveling to Essentially Ellington, the top three get to perform with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. That's something SPHS Jazz I has done three times.
This incentive pushes them to excel, though Guidry said it’s really about the entire experience.
“It’s called the Essentially Ellington Competition and Festival but nobody really cares about the competition,” he said. “I guess it’s very much just a celebration of the music and everyone just being there. There’s no negativity -- it's everyone cheering each other on.”
Students also have the chance to be recognized by some of the nation's best jazz students, who give awards to individual musicians. One year, for instance, a Sun Prairie bassist received a soloist award from jazz bass legend Ron Carter.
The professional musicians, Sveum said, are part of jazz history.
"They don't treat it like it's high school kids," Sveum said. "They treat it like its one of their professional productions and they put all hands on deck for it."
Guidry agreed with Sveum's assessment. He said he still remembers a comment from Jazz at Lincoln Center Director Wynton Marsalis at a panel where the jazz musicians wore formal attire as they fielded questions from students.
"Somebody asked him, 'do you guys always rehearse in your suits?'" Guidry remembered. "And he was like ‘usually we wear normal stuff but on this day we were wearing suits . . . we're dressed up to respect you guys as musicians.' And I took that to heart because we were just a bunch of high schoolers, teenagers and they were a bunch of professional musicians that took us seriously and respected us."
Sveum said the jazz band will spend the vast majority of its time at the festival, but will have a few free moments to celebrate Ron Carter's 80th birthday celebration at the Blue Note, visit Louie Armstrong's house and go on a brunch boat tour of Manhattan.
Between the airfare, hotels, and other expenses, the trip costs approximately $30,000. Luckily, Sveum said, the community has been overwhelmingly supportive. Food night fundraisers at local restaurants have done "unbelievably well," Sveum said. The Maureen Mengelt Foundation provided matching donations for money raised through last week. Jazz I alumni have contributed money -- many of them encouraged by their own Essentially Ellington experiences.
Guidry and tenor sax play Andrew Chavez are among the students who spend their free periods practicing on their own. In addition to practicing before school with the rest of Jazz I, the individual student-led sections also meet on their own at least once per week.
“They’ll put in hours and hours and hours,” Sveum said.
Chavez said it takes a massive amount of work.
“I would say with rehearsing, a lot of it is comparing it to the recording and having an idea of what we want to sound like,” he said. “…There’s one part in our fast song that’s a lot of articulation, so I’ve been doing an articulation exercise two-three times per day just so I can play it in time.”
Guidry agreed that he’d put in a lot of work. They’ve been rehearsing the same three pieces since the fall, and they’re focusing on tiny details.
“There are days where I come here for an entire class period and just play two measures over and over and over again: at slow tempos, at fast tempos,” he said.
But for the students, the final result is worth the effort.
“In rehearsal, if we did it well you can feel that it went well,” Chavez said. “As part of it being my last year I’m trying to have that as many times as possible.”
"When you play it well it feels really good and you can tell because the whole band is like smiling like ‘yeah that went great,'," he said. "And you can always tell when it doesn't always go so well because our heads are down, we're ruffling up our hair like, ‘God, what went wrong?' So I think that's part of what it is as well: We're working hard and we want to have fun. And the better we play, the more fun we have.”