Essentially Swingin': Seattle produces nation's best jazz bands

SEATTLE -- What are the chances? What are the odds?

That a jazz band like the one at Roosevelt High School would inhabit the same space, the same city as the band at Garfield High?

It's not impossible of course, because it has happened. It also happened that Lennon and McCartney were both raised in Liverpool. And that Van Gogh and Gauguin were roommates for a time.

But seriously, what are the odds?

For at least the last 15 years, and probably much longer than that, they have been the two best high school jazz bands around. Not in Seattle, mind you. In America.

The Essentially Ellington Competition in New York is the most important jazz band competition in the land. It was started in 1999 by Wynton Marsalis. Schools turn in a CD of their music, and they are judged blindly. Judges don't know WHO they are listening to, only WHAT they are listening to. Politics doesn't work at Essentially Ellington. Just music.

Garfield High has gone to New York and won it all an unprecedented 4 times. Roosevelt has won it all 3 times. And they've finished in the top-4 more times than anybody.

The two schools have, through the sweat of two iconic instructors, created a living, breathing and above all SWINGING hotbed of America's gift to the world: jazz.

There is no real way to describe the rush of air and tone that comes crashing into one's ears when you stand in front of one of these bands, and at the count of four a phalanx of brass and woodwinds blasts out at you in perfect, tight unison. POP! POW! POP!

The microphone on a TV camera doesn't do it justice. Electronic recording devices can't really capture it either. It's bigger than rock'n roll. Has more attitude than punk and more swagger than hip-hop.

And then the rhythm kicks in with the standup bass, and the drum, not over the music but under it, and the piano with complex chords in perfect time, creating a big, rolling mosaic that fills and overwhelms the senses.

It is teamwork on a level that even great football teams can't touch. It is precision within hundredths of seconds. Groups of players entering and exiting the music seamlessly, gliding in and out like elegant dancers politely cutting in and bowing out.

But if you want to know who these kids are, what it feels like to be them, you need to listen to the solos.

I'm in the Garfield band room, listening, when a clarinet player named Isaac Gaines takes a solo on Black & Tan Fantasy. It is an expression so pure, a mastery of an instrument so pure, that thought is no longer necessary. Just feeling, pouring out the end of a horn, an artist's soul laid bare, painted with the colors of a thousand shades of sound.

It's beautiful, and the instructor, Clarence Acox knows it. "Yes sir!" he says as Isaac soars up and down, in an out, to a rhythm that no metronome could ever follow, a rhythm found only in the gut of this boy on this day in this room. "Yes sir! Yes SIR!" shouts Clarence.

Down the road at Roosevelt, instructor Scott Brown is prowling through his band's recital like a lion in the jungle. "Swing hard!" he yells. "Nice and tight! Stay tight!" His hand is snapping off the beat...his toes are tapping...this is his teaching dance. He's admonishing one moment, "Cmon! It's gotta stay in the pocket!" Praising the next. "nice and tight! Yeah!"

A kid wearing blue winter earmuffs stands up with his trombone and takes his turn. BWWWWAAAP! BOP! BOP! He's making it up as he goes, within a framework, a theme that was established at the beginning of the number. The sax section turns around to listen, smiling, tapping their toes, nodding their heads.

This moment is why all of them show up here every day. It's why they sit alone in their rooms at home for hours, working out phrases and fingerings, over and over until they can do them without thinking.

Scott Brown gets excited just talking about it.

"You're just riding on a non-stop groove," he says, and suddenly HE'S ad-libbing ABOUT ad-libbing, "And you feel the energy and it's moving forward and it's buoyant but it's in control... and it's swinging... and there's a pent up power in that..." He catches himself and stops. "I don't know," he says, "It really gets me going."

It gets Roosevelt also sax player Anna Dolde going too. "Hmmm... there's no better feeling for me, everyone being together and knowing what to do... and just playing with all of their heart... that's all you can ask for." Maybe she means that's all you can ask for in a song. Maybe she means in life. I'm not sure.

Clarence Acox sits stationary at the Garfield practice, like a 1-man Greek Chorus, the conscience, judge and jury of his band. And as piano player Jack Swiggette rips through a solo that raises the hairs on the back of your neck, Clarence can barely contain himself. "Aha!" he cries, and several of his other players throw in an admiring, "Whoaahhh!"

He, better than anyone, understands that trance-like place that Scott Brown talked about. "I call it the almighty GROOVE," he tells me, "And that means when it's in the pocket and everybody is swinging right, and you can see a smile on people's faces."

Isaac Pool, one of Garfield's trombone players puts it this way: "It's almost like i'm not controlling what's happening. It's like i'm feeling it. I'm feeling it, but it's not me doing the thing!"

Garfield is known for it's infectious joy on the bandstand. Fiona Boardman, the lead trombone says, "Let's say Jack plays something really filthy on piano. We're all like, 'Ohhh!' and everyone gets really pumped up."

They hoot and holler at each other as they play. Yelps and whoops of happiness. Why not?

There is an intense rivalry between the bands.

Or is there?

Scott Brown has been at Roosevelt for an amazing 30 years.

"Seeing another director like Clarence Acox...he's inspired me for years," he says.
But of the two, he's the new kid on the block. Clarence Acox has been at Garfield High for a staggering 43 years!

Rivalry? Well, away from school, the two of them play together in the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra.

Clarence smiles when I ask about Brown. "scott and I are very good friends and have been for a long time. Scott plays in my repertory group," he says, "and as I always like to say he would be nowhere near my group if I didn't like him."

There is a certain swagger and confidence that comes along with excellence. Both bands have it. And they make no bones about the fact that they feel the rivalry, and want to win.

Ryan Narby, Roosevelt's lead trombone says of the rivalry, "It's just a really fun thing to have."

I reply, "It's fun, but you want to beat them, right?"

There's a glint in his eye. "Oh, yeah," he smiles, "we LOVE beating them."

But mostly, they are two bands driven by mutual respect and admiration. Seriously. Anna Dolde says this about Garfield: "They're incredible... they are an absolutely incredible band."

Jack Swiggette says this about the other guys: "The Roosevelt band is fantastic."

Clarence Acox says that at Essentially Ellington, the people cheering hardest for Garfield are from Roosevelt. And the people cheering hardest for Roosevelt are from Garfield.

And any player in either band will tell you the most important thing of all, and perhaps the key to the question, "What are the odds?"

They will tell you that the two bands make each other better. They drive each other to practice, drive each other to work. They drive each other to greatness.

The two best bands.

The two best teachers.

Swinging hard. Swinging for the fences.

What are the odds?

Listen to a webcast of the competition here.