For more than a quarter-century, Sun Prairie High School has provided a showcase for jazz bands and clinicians from Wisconsin and across the country.

This year, the tradition continues, when the regional Essentially Ellington Sun Prairie Jazz Fest takes place on Saturday, Feb. 15 at SPHS, located at 888 Grove St.

The events features morning jazz clinics for students, followed in the afternoon by a jam session led by clinician Dan Wallach. That will be followed in the afternoon by improvisational and rhythm section workshops as well as master classes.

Band directors are also able to participate in a question-and-answer session and a directors lunch in addition to the master classes and workshops. Most sessions are designed to give feedback on each band’s performance of jazz music.

Many of the jazz music songs performed by the participating bands are pieces used for competition as part of Essentially Ellington, a free program for high school jazz bands that aims to elevate musicianship, broaden perspectives and inspire performance.

All participants in regional EE festivals (like the Sun Prairie Jazz Fest) have the option of submitting recordings of their performances to be judged in a blind screening process by professional jazz educators/musicians.

Every submission receives a thorough written assessment and a signed certificate.

The recording can also be used as an application to the annual EE High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival, held each May in New York City at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Fifteen bands are selected as finalists, with each receiving an in-school workshop led by a professional musician. The three-day festival allows students, teachers and musicians from across North America to participate in workshops, rehearsals and performances, concluding with an evening concert and awards ceremony featuring the three top-placing bands. The show closes with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis performing music from the following year’s EE curriculum.

Besides Wallach on saxophone, 2020 Regional EE Sun Prairie Jazz Fest Clinicians include Dennis Mackrel, drums; Katie Ernst — bass; Reggie Thomas — piano; Rick Haydon — guitar; Clay Jenkins, trumpet; Marty Robinson, trumpet; Steve Horne, trombone; Alexa Tarantino, saxophone; Greg Abate, saxophone and Bob Stewart, tuba and Essentially Ellington clinician.

The 2020 Regional Essentially Ellington Sun Prairie Jazz Fest concludes with a concert at 7 p.m. featuring clinicians and students from participating bands, including Cedarburg, Wausau West, Columbus, Fond du Lac, Mount Horeb, Waunakee and West DePere in addition to Sun Prairie.

The cost for the concert is $10 per adult or $5 per student or senior citizen. The concert will be performed in the Performing Arts Center at Sun Prairie High School.

Major sponsors of Jazz Fest include Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Sun Prairie Band Boosters, with additional sponsorship from Madison Jazz Society, Ward Brodt, the Shell Lake Arts Center and Birch Creek.

“[The concert] should be great with two [Count] Basie alums in the rhythm section — Dennis Mackrel on drums and Reggie Thomas on piano in addition to Clay Jenkins on trumpet (of the Clayton/Hamilton big band), Greg Abate, Katie Ernst and more,” remarked Steve Sveum, SPHS Jazz Band Director.

Sveum not only coordinates the schedule, but he directs Sun Prairie Jazz I (one of three participating Sun Prairie jazz bands) in their performance. Sveum will be able to demonstrate all he learned during concert’s final number — scheduled to include Sun Prairie Jazz I with all the Jazz Fest clinicians performing “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

Need more info? Check out for a detailed schedule of events or more information about Sun Prairie High School jazz bands.

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