Garfield High School jazz band placed first in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival at New York's Lincoln Center. Bands from Roosevelt and Edmonds-Woodway high schools competed but did not make it to the top three.

Performing in perhaps the strongest field of bands in the event’s history, Garfield won the Essentially Ellington high-school jazz-band competition for an unprecedented fourth time Monday night at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Led by director Clarence Acox, the Garfield band played with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis in Alice Tully Hall with other top-placing bands (Foxborough High School, from Foxborough, Mass., and Dillard Center for the Arts, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) before the winning school was announced.

Garfield’s lead trumpeter, senior Riley Mulherkar, named the “outstanding soloist” of the three-day festival, played a solo with Marsalis on the Duke Ellington tune, “The Shepherd.”

With the audience on its feet, the band backing them up, the two traded measures in a moment Mulherkar called “more than a thrill. … I can’t imagine anything better than to share it with one of my biggest idols.”

With four wins in the past decade, Garfield is the most successful and consistent band in the competition, considered the most prestigious of its kind.

Bands from two other schools in the Seattle area, Roosevelt and Edmonds-Woodway high schools, also competed. Three-time winner Roosevelt earned an honorable mention; Edmonds-Woodway did not place.

Contest judges reported they deliberated longer than ever and that the level of competition was never higher, said Edmonds-Woodway band director Jake Bergevin.

“This is the best-prepared band I have ever brought,” said Bergevin, who remarked how much better the bands in the competition have become over the years. “We did our best today with a lot of kids reaching down to bring their best to the table.”

“Every band sounded good; I sincerely mean that,” said Roosevelt band director Scott Brown. “I felt very good about our set. We played well enough to be there. [in the top three]… [The students] rose to the occasion. What more can I ask of them?”

As for Garfield, Acox said, “”What I’m most proud of is the time and effort the kids took upon themselves to do what it took to win. Not only did I rehearse them, but they held meetings, they had sectionals, they stepped up to the plate.”

The 15 finalists was culled from hundreds of schools in the U.S. and American schools worldwide.

Judges for this year’s competition included Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center; Ellington scholar David Berger; Mary Lou Williams scholar Ted Buehrer; saxophonist Jimmy Heath and bassist Rodney Whitaker.

“We are seeing these regional centers where great bands are feeding off each other,” said Erika Floreska, the director of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center, which runs the contest and festival. “Jazz is not just playing notes on a page correctly. Jazz is a culture.

“The level of musicianship, interpretation, improvisation and soloing has gotten 10 times better,” she said. “None of them sound like concert bands anymore. They all sound like jazz bands.”

That point was not lost on the audience at Alice Tully Hall. Garfield sax player Evan Shay, a senior, called Monday night’s performance “without a doubt, the best performance in the history of the school. I can’t describe the energy. The entire place was going crazy.”

Hugo Kugiya: hkugiya@yahoo.com