The Tucson Jazz Institute's Ellington Band took first place on Sunday in Jazz at Lincoln Center's national Essentially Ellington competition.


The Tucson Jazz Institute's Ellington Band took the top prize at the Jazz at Lincoln Center's 18th annual Essentially Ellington high school jazz competition in New York City.

Its win was announced Sunday at the culmination of the three-day event, which included concerts, mentoring sessions and competition.

"For education, this is like winning the Super Bowl, March Madness and the World Series all tied up into one," Doug Tidaback said minutes before he, the band and its entourage boarded a plane at Newark Airport to return to Tucson Monday.

Tidaback founded the institute along with Scott Black and Brice Winston. He directs the Ellington Band, made up of high school students from around Tucson and a few members from Nogales and Phoenix.

"I can't describe how great it feels to get recognition for these kids," Tidaback said.

The win comes with a $5,000 award for the school. It also comes with some hefty recognition: CNN and National Public Radio are among the news organizations that have interviewed Tidaback. HBO, which had representatives at the Sunday concert, has asked the band to provide some of the music for an upcoming film, "The Oregon Files." The cable television company will be giving the institute about $75,000 in recording equipment, Tidaback said.

And there was an added bonus: A gentleman in Dubai was so sure that a New Jersey band in the competition would win that he made a $5,000 bet with a friend. He lost and will be sending that money to the Tucson Jazz Institute.

The band, made up of 22 students, flew to New York after submitting a recording earlier this year. There were about 2,000 schools vying for one of the 15 invitations to the competition, Winston said. Winston stayed in Tucson to teach classes, rather than join his students, fellow teachers and some parents in New York.

"This means everything; it's so huge," said Winston, a nationally recognized jazz musician who returned to the Old Pueblo to teach in 2005.

The Ellington Band had been asked to participate in the Essentially Ellington competition before, but it competed in the Community School division, which it won in 2010 and '12. This year the rules changed, and all the bands competed on the same level.

"These are the 15 best jazz high school bands, and we came out on top," said Winston. "We put so much sweat and time into these kids to do their best, and when this happens, it's emotional."

Individual members of the band were honored, too: Alex Melnychuck, a student at Basis Tucson, was named the Outstanding Trumpet Solo; Sam Chess of University High School received the Outstanding Trombone Solo honor; and Alan Acosta of Sunnyside High School took the Outstanding Alto Saxophone award.

A special award was created for Tucson Magnet High School's Robbie Lee, who was given the Tripler Award. Lee plays piano and tenor sax and sings.

All the musicians are juniors in high school except Melnychuck, who has just completed the eighth grade.

The win wasn't expected, said Black, who teaches at the school and traveled to New York for the competition.

"I thought we would be second because the other band (New Jersey's Jazz House Kids) had members who were seasoned professionals. ... It's very exciting, to say the least."

After all bands competed, the judges named the top three, who performed at the final concert. While the judges had made up their minds, the winners had not yet been announced.

"When we were picked to play that night, my jaw hit the floor," Tidaback said. "I didn't even think we would be in the competition this year - we graduated a lot of good players last year."

He had prepared the students, explaining that just making it to the top 15 was an impressive honor.

On Sunday, the Ellington Band was the last of the three to play.

As the band opened, "the judges stopped, looked up, and watched what we were doing the whole time," Tidaback said. "They completely stopped and watched."

After one of the three tunes the band played, "The Royal Garden Blues," the audience jumped to its feet.

And when the winner was announced, the whole band erupted into cheers, Tidaback said.

But band member Chess, who plans a career as a jazz musician, had thought a win for the band was in the works.

"I was surprised more that we made the top three than that we won," he said from the Newark Airport. "Once we made the top three, I had a feeling."

The biggest thrill for Chess wasn't that award for Outstanding Trombone Solo; it was the one for the whole band.

"That made me really happy," he said.

If you go

The Tucson Jazz Institute's award-winning Ellington Band's year-end concert is 3 p.m. Sunday at Christ Community Church, 7801 E. Kenyon Drive. Tickets are $15-$20 at or at the door.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at or 573-4128.