The exciting music at this year's Bellevue Community College Jazz Band Festival made it obvious, yet again, that the Northwest is a breeding ground for top jazz talent, with the emphasis decidedly on "young."

Inclement weather, a flu bug and a Seattle band director’s “tough love” made the competition at this year’s Bellevue Community College Jazz Band Festival a bit unusual.

But the exciting music at BCC’s Carlson Theatre made it obvious, yet again, that the Northwest is a breeding ground for top jazz talent, with the emphasis decidedly on “young.”

Seattle’s Eckstein Middle School, directed by Moc Escobedo, took the top prize in its category, with Eckstein’s 14-year-old eighth-grade trombonist Bonnie Henwood really sparking the day.

Henwood’s solo on Duke Ellington’s beautiful “Blue Cellophane,” was amazing — flowing, creative, warm, articulate — and, above all, natural. How do these kids get so good so fast?

Save 75% on a Digital Subscription Today

“I grew up listening to jazz,” said Henwood, who studies with the excellent Seattle trombonist Jeff Jay and won a soloist award Thursday (see list of winners on page C8). “I really like Steve Turre a lot.” Turre is one of the finest trombonists in jazz.

Jazz runs in Henwood’s family. She has two older siblings who played at Roosevelt High School, one of whom is now at the University of Washington.

The middle-school runners up were Timbercrest Junior High (Woodinville) whose Gibraltar-solid drummer, Billy Cassidy, was a delight; and Kellogg Junior High (Shoreline) whose diminutive baritone saxophonist, Grace Oh, got a huge, gutsy sound out of that gigantic instrument.

But with all due respect, Eckstein’s win was a bit of a shoo-in, because the school’s perennial archrival, Seattle’s Washington Middle School, for the first time did not compete.

“Let’s just say they’re in boot camp,” explained Washington director Robert Knatt, who also said he will not bring the band to the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival competition, in Idaho, later this month. “You don’t do something because somebody before you did those things. You have to earn the right.”

By contrast, a new group from Oregon — Banks Junior High’s first jazz band ever — fielded a talented, 13-year-old alto saxophonist, Josh Lenz, who said, thanks to his dad’s record collection, he’d been listening to Miles Davis and Duke Ellington since he was 4 years old.

That kind of continuity — from parent to child, master to apprentice, sibling to sibling — is what jazz is all about.

So it was a matter of some curiosity whether kids who sparkled a couple of years ago from Langley Middle School, on Whidbey Island, were still carrying the torch at South Whidbey High School.

Unfortunately, a rampant flu bug kept them home.

“I wish you could have heard them,” lamented director Chris Harshman, who said most of the former Langley kids have, indeed, stuck with the music. “They’re killin’.”

Langley continues to produce good players, including vibraphonist Amy Anand, who won a soloist award, and drummer Darby Hayes, whose energy and time were excellent.

Another band laid low this year was Spokane’s Mead, thanks to closures of Snoqualmie Pass.

The BCC festival expanded from two days to three this year, so Friday was vocal jazz day, with the winner being Longview’s Mark Morris High School.

As always, Saturday’s high-school band competition drew a packed house and hot debates about rivals Garfield and Roosevelt. The judges went for Roosevelt, whose Basie-like, in-the-pocket tempo on “Who Can I Turn To?” was perfectly controlled, as were Roosevelt’s blend, dynamics and soloists on pretty much everything else. Garfield and Shorewood, from Shoreline, were the runners-up.

However, Garfield’s usual bristling, punchy energy was balanced by great precision and dynamics, and the band’s Zubin Hensler played a stunning fluegelhorn solo on Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream.”

One student who sounded great as a middle schooler two years ago continued to shine: Roosevelt’s trumpeter Corey Dansereau played a sweet ‘n’ sour hat-mute solo on Duke Ellington’s “Blue Serge.”

The Ellington connection has particular significance. Garfield, Roosevelt and Shorewood — among other local schools — have all submitted their tapes to the Essentially Ellington competition, in New York; the finalists are announced in about a month.

The Bellevue Festival is also a good clue as to who might win at Hampton. Only the judges can decide, but if Garfield won that round it would not be a shock.

And speaking of judges, one at BCC was international trumpet star Cuong Vu (see story on this page) a graduate of Bellevue High School now teaching at the University of the Washington.

The continuity and family spirit of Northwest jazz is clearly going to continue for some time to come.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or