Roosevelt High School won first place and Garfield finished second at the 2008 Essentially Ellington high-school jazz-band competition in New York. Five Seattle-area jazz bands were finalists.

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NEW YORK CITY — Roosevelt High School placed first and Garfield got second place at this weekend’s Essentially Ellington high-school competition, widely regarded as the Cadillac of jazz competitions.

Shorewood (from Shoreline) won an honorable mention.

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Some had wondered if the Puget Sound area would sweep the contest this year; out of 15 finalists chosen nationally, five were local. No region has ever sent five bands to Ellington before.

Roosevelt won the competition for an unprecedented third time; by winning the competition twice in a row, it matched Garfield’s first-place repeat in 2003-04.

The rivalry between the two schools has played out on this national stage for the past decade — Roosevelt and Garfield also finished 1-2 in 2002 — and this year’s judges said the contest was extremely close.

Third place went to Sun Prairie High School, from Wisconsin.

The other Puget Sound-area finalists were Mountlake Terrace and South Whidbey.

Saturday afternoon, Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of contest sponsor Jazz at Lincoln Center, announced the top three bands without revealing who won first, second or third. The winner announcement followed the concert later that night, when the top three bands performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Acknowledging the Northwest’s dominance at Ellington, Marsalis said, his tongue only half in cheek, “I’m challenging you all to do something about Seattle and Washington.”

“It does seem to come down to Garfield and Roosevelt,” said Clarence Acox, band director from Garfield, surrounded by jubilant students and parents after Saturday afternoon’s announcement. “Scott [Brown, director at Roosevelt] and I have been battling for years.”

Despite the domination of Roosevelt and Garfield, the area’s jazz excellence goes beyond those two high schools. In the past 10 years, Puget Sound-area bands have won the competition five times, and nearly one-third of the national finalist slots have been won by Washington bands.

The contest itself is just one aspect of the Essentially Ellington festival experience. It began Thursday with a pep talk from Marsalis, followed by workshops and rehearsals with Jazz at Lincoln Center mentors, a banquet and a jam session. Friday’s activities included an open rehearsal with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. At night, students fanned out to jazz clubs and Broadway shows, taking in everything from “Phantom of the Opera” to trumpeter Tom Harrell, at the Village Vanguard.

“The atmosphere is really cool,” said Shorewood trumpeter Chris Stewart, 17. “At other festivals, you play your tunes and it’s over. Here, the whole three days, everything is jazz.”

As in past years, bands performed music by Duke Ellington, chosen from a list of 19 tunes, six of which were new to the competition. Favorites were a difficult piece showcasing soloists, “Jam-A-Ditty”; the beautiful dirge “Blue Serge”; and Ellington’s showcase for three clarinets, “The Mooche.”

Student performances were judged by a panel of four: Marsalis; composer, arranger, conductor and Ellington authority David Berger; Reggie Thomas, a professor of music at Southern Illinois University; and renowned clarinetist and band leader Bob Wilber.

Jazz at Lincoln Center started the festival in 1996 and opened it to schools west of the Mississippi in 1999. It provides scores of Ellington’s music, and bands submit recordings to compete for the finals. This year, 83 bands entered.

That number is significantly down from some previous years, when nearly 180 bands applied. Joanna Massey, the assistant director of education, speculated about the drop-off.

“Unfortunately, there are many bands that have applied and have been repeatedly unsuccessful, so they have decided to not submit.”

Other reasons, she said, might be strapped finances and student testing, a factor because many school administrations are loath to let students spend time out of class preparing for Ellington.

Next year, the music of Benny Carter will be included in the competition repertoire. A new composer will be folded in every year.

Massey said Marsalis had always planned to include other composers, but started with Ellington as a base.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

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