Musically, Duke Ellington put it best: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
This weekend, a pair of Massachusetts high school bands will be pumping fresh meaning into that classic lyric, penned by Ellington collaborator Irving Mills, by swinging as hard as these young players know how.
Jazz ensembles from Lexington High and Foxborough High are among 15 finalists in this year’s Essentially Ellington competition, which began Friday at New York’s Lincoln Center. Founded in 1996, the three-day, student-oriented jazz festival honors one of America’s greatest composers and band leaders and features Wynton Marsalis as host, with musical support by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
Officials describe this year’s competition as among the most intense ever, having allowed community bands — all-star bands, essentially — to audition, reinstating a policy they had ended over a decade ago. Three finalists from each of five designated regions were selected to perform in New York this year.
“Going to the Super Bowl of [high school] jazz competitions is a big deal, it really is,” said Lexington High performing arts coordinator Jeffrey Leonard, who has been at the school for 30 years and seen its musicians make the finals four times previously.
During a rehearsal earlier this week, a smiling Leonard urged this year’s group to “put more of that late-Thirties bounce” into their rendition of the jaunty Ellington tune “Half the Fun.”
Whetting their appetite for what was to come, Leonard described Lincoln Center’s Rose Hall, where they’ll be performing Sunday, as a “gorgeous musical environment. You’ll hear everything onstage, and so will the audience.”
The competition annually attracts the most talented and polished high school jazz bands in the United States and Canada. Ninety-six bands submitted audition tapes this year. Finalists were notified in early March; each will perform three pieces this weekend, one or more of which must come from a group of six Ellington tunes preselected by festival judges.
Lexington will play Sunday morning in a bracket with schools from Florida and Wisconsin. Foxborough will perform that afternoon, alongside bands from California, Arizona, and Washington. Sunday night’s finale concert and award ceremony will feature the weekend’s outstanding soloists and top three bands and will be webcast live on www.jalc.org.
Historically, Massachusetts schools have fared exceptionally well in this competition, sending finalists to New York 17 times in 18 years. Foxborough alone has qualified 14 times, including this year, winning first-place honors in 1997 and placing in the top three on four other occasions. The winning school receives $5,000; each finalist gets at least $500, plus a private workshop with a jazz professional.
“The caliber of playing at this competition is so high, it’s scary,” said Foxborough music director Stephen Massey, guiding his band through rehearsals this week. Now in his 31st year at the school, Massey said neither he nor his students take making the finals for granted.
“What we’ve built here is a culture of excellence that perpetuates itself,” he said. “For a small school [about 800 students], that surprises some people. But these kids work very, very hard to play at this level.”
Massey’s group will perform two Ellington tunes, “Royal Garden Blues”and “Perdido” (written by Juan Tizol and first recorded by Ellington), plus “Blood Count,” a composition by Ellington cohort Billy Strayhorn.
Nine of the 17 Foxborough band members traveling to New York are girls, noted Massey, an unusually high percentage for a high school jazz band.
Trombonist and band president John Mitchell, 17, a senior, will be going to his second Lincoln Center gig. His first, two years ago, was memorable, he said.
“We stepped off the bus, and everyone was cheering for us,” said Mitchell, who will attend the University of Massachusetts Lowell next fall. “We all wanted each other to swing hard and play well.”
At Lexington High, which last made the finals in 2006, band director Andrew Held has chosen “Half the Fun” and “Echoes of Harlem” from the Ellington songbook, along with “Walking and Swinging” by composer-pianist Mary Lou Williams.
Held, a former Air Force Jazz Band trumpet player, joined the faculty just this year. He and Leonard believe Lexington’s success — its ensemble was also invited to this year’s Charles Mingus High School Competition & Festival, held at Manhattan School of Music in February, which it won in 2012 — is rooted in its approach to teaching jazz.
By having players practice in quartets, quintets, and smaller combos, rather than solely as a big-band ensemble, Leonard said, “they all learn what it is to swing, not just how to play third trumpet.”
To Lexington High trumpeter Jason Stein, 18, a Harvard-bound senior, playing music that thrilled his grandparents’ generation seems pretty cool — at least when the music is this brilliantly composed and arranged.
“There’s so much nuance to it, so many levels to Ellington’s music and the musicians he hired — I’ve been spending months just listening to Cootie Williams,” Stein said, referring to the legendary trumpeter who played in Ellington's orchestra, on and off, for five decades.
Lexington junior Kira Daglio Fine, 16, plays alto sax. At school, she says, accomplished musicians such as herself may not enjoy the same stature as star athletes, but they are recognized for their talent and commitment to excellence nonetheless.
“If we’re not the quote-unquote cool kids, we do get respect,” Daglio Fine said during a rehearsal break this week.
According to Jazz at Lincoln Center vice president of education Todd Stoll, one factor in the decision to allow community bands back into the competition this year is widespread budget cutbacks, which have left many students without a jazz ensemble to join at their own schools.
“We decided to open up the playing field more,” he said.
That plus the festival’s stellar track record and outreach programs — Jazz at Lincoln Center has distributed, at no charge, more than 135,000 copies of previously unavailable big-band scores to thousands of schools — have made the 2013 festival more competitive than ever, Stoll maintains.
“Ultimately, though, our goal is to support music teachers,” he said. “And to have more kids know who Duke Ellington is.”
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.