Back in March, when Jazz at Lincoln Center announced that the prestigious Essentially Ellington high school jazz competition and festival would not take place in May in New York due to the pandemic, there were a lot of very disappointed young musicians around Puget Sound. Five Seattle-area bands had made the finals, including a first-time slot for the nonprofit school Seattle JazzED, which draws students from all over the region, and four repeat appearances by Garfield High School, Roosevelt High School, Mountlake Terrace High School and Mount Si High School.

“It was one of the worst things that could happen in my life,” said JazzED alto saxophonist Ava Lim, a senior at Ballard High School. “One of my only dreams was to go to Ellington on a jazz band trip.”

As it turns out, Lim will be able to participate, after all. Though she can’t go to New York, she’ll be part of a virtual version of the festival that streams June 8-12. The event is shaping up as a lively one, with streams of the finalists’ audition recordings, accompanied by video and photos, plus innovative “virtual jam sessions.” Though no first-, second- and third-place winners will be selected, after the performances, judges will offer streamed comments and conversations with band directors and students, and awards will be given to outstanding soloists and instrumental sections. Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, will also offer his usual address and commentary.

Twenty-three bands are featured, including 18 finalists from U.S. schools, and appearances by five international groups from Spain, Japan, Scotland, Australia and Cuba.

The jam sessions were assembled by having students add solos, using their phones, to prerecorded rhythm section tracks sent out by Jazz at Lincoln Center musicians.

“It’s looking to be pretty incredible,” said Garfield High School band director Jared Sessink, who took over at Garfield this year after longtime director Clarence Acox retired.


Sessink was delighted and surprised when he found out Garfield had won a finalist slot in his first year at the school.

“That was something,” he said. “But I heard the students and I knew just from their musicianship this was totally possible.”

Sessink previously taught at Seattle’s Washington Middle School, the “feeder” for Garfield. One of the other finalists at this year’s Essentially Ellington is also led by an ex-Washington Middle School band director, Kelly Clingan, who leads the band at JazzED.

“This is totally the highlight of my career,” said Clingan, who also leads an all-girl Ellington ensemble at JazzED that was invited to a national festival in Savannah, Georgia, last year.

Seattle-area bands have dominated Essentially Ellington over the years, with Garfield High School and Roosevelt High School taking first place four times each. One of the reasons so many Seattle-area bands made the finals in 2020 is that Jazz at Lincoln Center, to mark the event’s 25th anniversary, lifted an earlier restriction that had allowed only three bands from predetermined geographical regions to compete.

The entire 2020 festival can be viewed on Essentially Ellington’s Facebook page, starting at 6 p.m. Monday, June 8. The virtual jam sessions stream at 2 p.m. Thursday, June 11, and bands can be heard Friday, June 12, starting at 11 a.m. (All times PDT).


Correction: This article has been updated with Ava Lim’s correct last name.