For the 21st time in 23 years, Seattle’s Roosevelt High School Jazz Band has made the finals of the prestigious Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Festival, which will be held virtually June 4-5. Perhaps even more astonishing, thanks to COVID-19, this year’s Roosevelt band has never once played together as a unit and band director Scott Brown has never seen the students play as a band.
“It’s crazy,” said Brown, who was elated when he received the news Friday afternoon. “Everything was done in their homes.”
Through the magic of digital audio, individual tracks were overlaid, starting with the rhythm section, which did play together in person, in a safe, socially distanced setting, said Brown. Over the next three weeks, the saxophone, trumpet, trombone parts and solos were added and mixed with the help of an engineer who specializes in such work. Because of the challenge of recording during the pandemic, only one audition tune, Duke Ellington’s “Old King Dooji,” was required, rather than the usual three.
“It was a huge challenge to make it sound cohesive,” said Brown. “But the kids were really determined.”
The Roosevelt band is the only Seattle band among this year’s 15 finalists, which is also unusual, as Seattle has always sent at least two groups — and sometimes five — to the festival since 1999, when the event was opened to schools west of the Mississippi. Garfield High School — which, like Roosevelt, has won top honors at Essentially Ellington four times — did not apply. Brown was not aware if other local schools had submitted tapes.