For the second year in a row, the Tucson Jazz Institute’s Ellington Big Band has taken the top prize in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition.
The three-day event in New York City wound up Sunday with the announcement of the winners.
This is no “ah, isn’t that nice” award. The competition attracts high school jazz bands from around the country. A video of the band playing a Duke Ellington piece is submitted — this year, 94 schools were vying for one of the 15 slots.
The event includes concerts and mentoring by jazz greats. The competition is fierce, and the judging, which includes jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, is tough.
Doug Tidaback, director of big bands at and co-founder of the Tucson Jazz Institute, said that bands are given a choice of Ellington compositions to perform, and some of them are very difficult.
“We always pick the really hard tunes so we can separate ourselves,” he said. “And because they are so challenging.”
The 26-piece band played three pieces for the competition — “Happy Go Lucky Local,” “I Like the Sunrise,” and “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.”
In addition to the top prize, 10 of the musicians won awards in eight of the 12 solo categories, and the band took top honors for its Outstanding Saxophone Section and Outstanding Trombone Section.
The Tucson Jazz Institute first entered this competition in 2010, when there was a community category for smaller schools, which it won. They won again in 2012 (at that time, winners had to skip the next year). Last year, all categories were merged, so that smaller schools from rural areas are competing with the big city bands.
“The stage manager said when we first played in 2010, we raised the level,” said Tidabeck. “Then in 2012, we raised it again, and again last year. He says we keep raising the level.”
Recordings of the Tucson Jazz Institute’s Ellington tunes are now part of what other high school bands study to enter the competition, said Tidaback, just as the Tucson Jazz Institute did when it first entered the event.
“We learned a lot from those recordings, and they helped us prepare.”
The win comes with the trophy, prestige, and a tidy $5,000 check for the school.