For the second consecutive year, Seattle high schools claimed the top two spots at this weekend's Essentially Ellington Festival in New York, the nation's premier high-school jazz-band contest.

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For the second consecutive year, Seattle high schools claimed the top two spots at this weekend’s Essentially Ellington Festival in New York, the nation’s premier high-school jazz-band contest.

Seattle’s Garfield High School placed first and Roosevelt High School was second. The 1-2 order was reversed last year, with Roosevelt on top.

“We are enjoying the moment,” said Clarence Acox, reaching by phone in New York Sunday night, just after the announcement of Garfield’s win.

“We’re standing right in front of Jazz at Lincoln Center taking pictures with the trophy,” said the longtime band director. “It never gets old.”

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Garfield’s victory was its third, tying a record Roosevelt set in 2008 and furthering the Seattle schools’ dominance at Ellington. West Coast schools began going to Ellington in 1999. Roosevelt and Garfield have each won three times since then; no other school has won twice.

On Sunday afternoon, Essentially Ellington-presenter Jazz at Lincoln Center invited the top three bands — based on judging of their performances earlier in the weekend — to take the stage with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis.

Joining Garfield and Roosevelt in the festival-closing concert at Avery Fisher Hall was Eau Claire Memorial High School, from Eau Claire, Wis., which finished third.

New World School of the Arts, a prior Ellington champion from Miami, was named honorable mention.

Bellevue’s Newport High School also was among the 15 schools in the Ellington finals. While Newport did not play in the final concert, the band’s rising-star singer-pianist, Ariel Pocock, received the Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Vocalist Award. Students from all three schools won numerous individual and sectional awards (see a complete list at

At least three Washington state schools have been invited to the Ellington finals every year since the contest was opened to schools in the West 11 years ago.

Roosevelt High School’s Ellington record is right at the top, with 10 trips to the Ellington finals out of a possible 11, and three wins. Those statistics now are matched by Garfield (or bettered; Garfield’s current finals streak is eight years).

As a laughing Acox said of his school’s rival: “We all square.”

Two-time defending champion Roosevelt was going for one record that Garfield doesn’t have: three consecutive victories.

But Scott Brown, director at Roosevelt, said his band wasn’t feeling any pressure. Commenting just before the Sunday-night concert — when he knew only that his band had finished in the top three — Brown noted that the winner already was decided. “Tonight is just playing for the enjoyment of it — as we do all the time.”

With one bonus: “We get to play with Wynton!”

The festival-closing concert with Marsalis features music composed by Duke Ellington, the festival’s namesake, and this year, for the first time in the program’s history, music by another composer, Mary Lou Williams.

The jazz-band contest is only one part of the Ellington festival, now in its 14th year. This year’s event began Friday with a welcome from Marsalis. Workshops, rehearsals and the judged performances — plus some time on the town — filled the next two days.

Garfield came to New York on a bit of a roll, logging wins over Roosevelt and the rest of the fields at two major Ellington warm-ups — the Lionel Hampton Festival at the University of Idaho and the Bellevue Community College Jazz Festival.

“We have a lot of momentum going,” Acox said, “but the kids never rest on their laurels. They never get complacent.”

Garfield’s last victory at Ellington, in 2004, came before any of the current musicians were in the band. “I’m the only one, the old man,” Acox said. “This is the largest senior class I’ve ever had, in the largest band I’ve ever had.”

One of his seniors said this moment was long in coming. “After four years, we finally won,” said senior Carl Majeau, 18, who outstanding awards on clarinet and tenor saxophone. “It’s an amazing feeling.”

But rival Roosevelt shouldn’t expect things to be any easier when these seniors are gone next year. “There are lots of kids in the B band, ready to step up,” Acox said.

Raina Wagner: 206-464-8147 or

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