"There's more than two jazz bands in the Seattle area that are kickin'," asserts Jeehah Yu, an 18-year-old senior who plays screaming lead...

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“There’s more than two jazz bands in the Seattle area that are kickin’,” asserts Jeehah Yu, an 18-year-old senior who plays screaming lead trumpet in the Shorewood High School jazz band. “Just the fact that we are there with Garfield says something.”

Yu is talking about the Essentially Ellington Festival, in New York, where his band will be playing this weekend.

Ellington is the Cadillac of high-school jazz competitions and Shorewood is one of two suburban high schools in the area — Mountlake Terrace is the other — to make the finals. They’ll compete against Seattle’s Garfield and Roosevelt.

This is the third year four Seattle-area bands have been selected — out of a total of 15 from the United States and Canada. Garfield has won the past two years, and Roosevelt won in 2002. But Yu is right. It’s time for a suburban shout-out.

Since the 1999 festival, when Essentially Ellington opened to schools west of the Mississippi, the Seattle area has accounted for an astounding 22 of 110 finalist slots in New York. Ten of those slots — nearly half — have been awarded to suburban schools. Mountlake Terrace alone has made the finals three times, winning Honorable Mention in 2002. Shorewood has been selected for the big show twice. Other outlying schools that have made the cut include Kentridge, Kentlake, Edmonds-Woodway and Newport. (Spokane’s Mead High School was a finalist last year.)

JIM BATES / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Arturo O’Farrill works with the Mountlake Terrace High School jazz band, competing at Essentially Ellington.

“I’m not out to blow my horn,” says Shorewood band director Paul Harshman, “but sometimes I think the kids feel they’ve done some pretty neat stuff that goes unrecognized.”

Ironically, suburban districts like Shoreline and Edmonds (where Mountlake Terrace is), offer better support for music programs than Seattle, though the Emerald City has other advantages. After pre-festival clinics two weeks ago, it was hard to call a winner. The kids, many visiting New York for the first time, are pumped.

Essentially Ellington is the brainchild of trumpeter, composer and band leader Wynton Marsalis, who directs the nonprofit organization, Jazz at Lincoln Center (J@LC). Since 1996, J@LC has sent free Ellington scores to high-school jazz bands, inviting them to send in a tape of three compositions. This year, more than 1,000 bands in the United States and Canada received scores; 111 applied.

The competition tunes are “Isfahan,” “Happy-Go-Lucky-Local” (better known as its R & B step-child, “Night Train”),” “I Didn’t Know About You,” “Ring Dem Bells,” “Purple Gazelle” and “V.I.P.’s Boogie.”

The finalists compete live in New York Saturday and Sunday in front of four judges, including Marsalis. The top three bands perform Sunday with Marsalis himself, and the winner is announced that night. Bands receive cash prizes from $250-$1,000.

This year’s competition has special significance. It marks the event’s 10th anniversary and takes place for the first time in Frederick P. Rose Hall, the sumptuous new home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which opened last October. The winner of an essay contest about jazz gets to name a seat in Rose Hall.

“Of all the things we do at Jazz at Lincoln Center — even our trip to China — Essentially Ellington is by far the most important,” says Arturo O’Farrill, pianist and director of J@LC’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. O’Farrill was in the Northwest two weeks ago helping local bands polish their material.

At Mountlake Terrace, moving to the piano bench during a take of the ballad “I Didn’t Know About You,” O’Farrill demonstrated how to spice up an improvised accompaniment.

“Add some little flashes of color,” O’Farrill urged pianist Kevin Proudfoot, demonstrating with a couple of phrases. “You’ve the got the basic ‘ker-plunk,’ now you just need the ‘ker-plink.’ ”

Proudfoot slid back onto the bench, immediately picking up on the idea.

“Yeah, that’s it!” O’Farrill said. Proudfoot smiled.

The spacious, high-ceilinged Mountlake Terrace band room is emblematic of the spending suburban school districts lavish on music. While no school district, urban or suburban, gives much to band programs directly ($300-$1,000 is the usual budget range), the Edmonds district has a full-time music administrator; a general music teacher and instrumental music instruction in every elementary school; and a band, orchestra and choir in every middle school and high school. Ditto for Shoreline, except the music specialist is part-time.

Contrast that to Seattle, where there is no music administrator, a music specialist in just over half the elementaries and limited performance opportunities in upper-level schools.

Given the suburban advantage, it’s surprising Seattle schools do so well. But Mountlake Terrace band director Darin Faul says Seattle has other plusses. One is strong “feeder schools” at the middle-school level, where kids are introduced to jazz early on. The other is that Roosevelt and Garfield draw from a much larger pool, in effect operating as jazz magnet schools.

Faul, a 31-year-old classical trumpeter who wears his hair in dredlocks, also points out he’s younger and has less jazz experience than his colleagues at Roosevelt and Garfield.

He has made up for his liabilities rather neatly. In his first year of teaching, 1998, Mountlake Terrace took the sweepstakes at Clark College and at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, in Idaho.

“I bought every recording of every tune the band had in its book,” Faul recalls. “I’d show up at 4:45 a.m. and study the scores.”

Harshman, also a trumpet player fond of jousting with the kids, is a veteran by comparison, with 11 years at Kentridge and six at Shorewood under his belt. Shorewood has had a couple of banner years under his baton. The band won first place at the prestigious University of North Texas Jazz Festival this year; last year, they took first at Berklee College, in Boston. Unfortunately, no one outside Shoreline heard about any of this since, as Harshman admits, “publicity is not one of my strong points.”

The trip to New York will cost about $1,000 per kid, which bands at both schools have raised from benefit dances, CD sales, grants from the Associated Students and other fund-raisers.

Harshman emphasizes student enterprise, urging kids to organize their own sectional rehearsals at home, for example.

” ‘See how much further you guys can take it without me helping you out,’ I tell them,” says the demonstrative director. “I’ve got pretty highly motivated kids.”

Of course, so do Garfield and Roosevelt, so the competition will be stiff. Just to make the finals this year, Seattle bands had to jump a higher bar, because finalists from the past two years are required to compete in a separate category for one of five slots.

But handicapping this horse race is not easy. Shorewood’s ensemble sound is gorgeous and their alto saxophonist, Sam Reid, has a tone like gold. Mountlake Terrace bassist Marina Christopher could swing the Basie band by herself, and vocalist/pianist Katie Jacobson is a double threat. Garfield has some awesome sax soloists in Rob Hanlon and Andrew Mulherkar, and Roosevelt’s got sax soloist Logan Strosahl and vocalist Isabella Graf.

And there’s another Northwest band coming to Ellington that just might upset the whole (Big) Apple cart. Arts and Communication Magnet Academy, from Beaverton, Ore., aced everyone — urban, suburban or otherwise — at Hampton this year. They could do it in New York, too.

The kids take a philosophical view. “The way I look at it,” says Yu, “we’re already celebrating, just making it there.”

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com