Chris Harshman and his brother, Paul, have always been "friendly competitors," says Chris. When they were in high school in the late 1970s...

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Chris Harshman and his brother, Paul, have always been “friendly competitors,” says Chris.

When they were in high school in the late 1970s, they both played in jazz band, both ran track and marched side by side in an out-of-school marching band. In college, they flourished in the jazz band, roomed together and ran on the same cross-country team.

Just one year apart — Paul is 47; Chris, 46 — they had some sibling rivalry, but were careful not to get in each other’s way, playing different instruments (Paul, trumpet; Chris, reeds) and rarely competing in the same sporting events.

“It has never been me versus him,” insists Paul Harshman.

Not until this week, that is.

Today in New York, the Harshman brothers go head-to-head at the Essentially Ellington competition. Paul Harshman will be directing the Shorewood High School jazz band, from Shoreline; Chris will lead the South Whidbey High School unit, out of Langley, on Whidbey Island.

Along with three others from the Puget Sound area, their bands are among 15 in the U.S. and Canada to make the Essentially Ellington finals. No region has ever sent five bands to Ellington before.

The Seattle area’s success in the Cadillac of jazz competitions is legendary. Since Ellington was opened to schools in the West in 1999, Northwest bands have accounted for nearly a quarter of the finalist slots, and won the competition four times in the last nine years.

“Is there something in the water out there?” one wag from Jazz at Lincoln Center once asked.

No. But there is most definitely something in the school-band rooms.

“I hate to sound conceited,” says Paul Harshman, “but we’ve got some really good jazz teachers here who have pushed each other to greater heights. The bar is higher.”

Our jazz-education history goes back more than 40 years, in a dizzying genealogy of crisscrossing relationships and influences. Though Seattle’s Garfield and Roosevelt High schools usually get the attention, quality jazz education has spread like a brushfire to the suburbs. The Harshman brothers are a prime example — they are the heirs of a jazz-education legacy handed down by four great teachers: Waldo King, Hal Sherman, John Moawad and Dave Barduhn.

Passing the torch

Waldo King grew up playing music in Centralia with ex-Count Basie saxophonist Bill Ramsay. In 1960, King started the Garfield jazz program — the first in Seattle schools — and later those at Franklin and Roosevelt, where he taught from 1969 until his retirement in 1983.

A young Chris Harshman was so impressed with King’s 1979 band — a legendary outfit known widely as one of the best high-school bands ever — that he transferred from Nathan Hale to Roosevelt, just so he could spend his senior year playing in the band.

Around the same time, Dave Barduhn, a former student of King’s, exerted a huge influence on the Harshman brothers as well. One of the most respected high-school and college jazz-band arrangers in the country, Barduhn encountered the brothers as the director of the Cascades Drum and Bugle Corps, a tradition related to competitive marching bands with drummers and brass instruments exclusively.

“My first experience when it came to how to teach jazz was with Dave Barduhn,” says Chris Harshman, who switched from reeds to bass bugle for the corps.

Barduhn supplemented the usual corps repertoire with charts by jazz greats Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich.

“So we were in this environment that was all about precision, but we were playing jazz.”

Says Barduhn, now 53 and teaching at Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon: “It’s kind of a lineage that went from Waldo through me and down to Harshman and those guys. We just passed on the torch.”

That flame was also passed along by another founding father of area jazz — Hal Sherman. His Kent-Meridian High School jazz band swept regional competitions for years, and he also started the Kent-Meridian Jazz Festival at the old Opera House. The popular fest brought international stars to Seattle Center, and Chris Harshman remembers being attending as a child.

Scott Brown, the band director at Roosevelt, says that festival had a profound impact.

“Hal really showed the possibilities for what could be done, putting [bands] in a professional venue, not just your typical school concert in the gym,” says Brown, whose Roosevelt band is another of the five competing at Ellington.

Setting the tone

After high school, the Harshmans went on to Central Washington University, where they met John Moawad.

Moawad (pronounced Mau-id) had started the jazz program at Nathan Hale High School before heading to CWU. A charismatic figure who trained Paul Harshman and several other students who’d go on to run area jazz programs, Moawad is in the same league as King.

“There’s no doubt that he and Waldo set the tone for the way people swing in the Northwest,” says Paul Harshman.

Seattle’s jazz-education legacy can’t all be forced onto a simple genealogy chart. But there are all kinds of influences and relationships among the five band directors competing at Ellington this week. Brown, for example, never studied with Waldo King, but learned of his excellence indirectly — through his band members.

“There were some students who had been with Waldo,” recalls Brown, who started at Roosevelt in 1984. “I was fresh out of college and they kind of passed on very adamantly the lessons that they learned: ‘Waldo did it this way.’ ‘Lay back, man.’ Even the bus driver: ‘Waldo buys all the chaperones and the bus driver steaks when we go [on a trip].’ “

Usually, such behavior drives teachers nuts. But after listening to recordings of the band, and playing King’s charts, Brown quickly caught on.

“The effect, for me, was like coming home,” he says. “I’d never really felt like I’d been in a jazz band that swung the way I felt like swinging.”

“Swing” is that feeling of relentless but restrained momentum that seems to lift the music off the ground. It’s what makes you want to dance when you hear a band like Count Basie’s or Duke Ellington’s. King instilled that feeling into his jazz kids.

During the 1970s, many high-school jazz bands “modernized” their swing feeling by adding a rock or Latin feel. But most Northwest bands stuck to the traditional way of Basie and Ellington. That old rhythmic feel is highly prized by Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, which sponsors Essentially Ellington. The rootedness of traditional swing in Seattle high-school jazz bands goes a long way toward explaining why kids in this area have been so successful at Essentially Ellington.

Since King passed him the swing baton, Brown has taken his Roughriders to two first-place victories at Essentially Ellington, toured the band through Mexico, Europe and China and turned out a bevy of quality professional players.

Building the legacy

Another reason jazz has prospered in area high schools is the strong feeder programs from middle schools.

Robert Knatt is band director at Washington, which feeds into Garfield. During his 18 years at the middle school, Knatt (who retires in June) established a dynasty with Garfield band director Clarence Acox.

At 35, Darin Faul, in New York this week with his Mountlake Terrace band, is the youngest kid on the Ellington block.

In a serendipitous turn, Faul did his student teaching with Knatt.

“Bob has been a huge mentor to me,” Faul says of Knatt. “One thing he taught me was high expectations for every kid. Going down the line and making sure every kid can play it.”

Faul’s on his fourth trip to Essentially Ellington, where his band placed third in 2005 and received an honorable mention in 2002.

Roosevelt students benefit from middle-school excellence, too — essentially, these kids get seven years of top-notch jazz education instead of four — through feeder-school Eckstein Middle School. Moc Escobedo leads the program at Eckstein, which has recently outstripped Washington at major contests.

And then there’s Acox, the fifth and final Seattle-area 2008 Ellington finalist. With a band that has made the Ellington finals nine of the past 10 years and a career that spans almost four decades, this Louisiana transplant has become a Northwest influence in his own right.

When Acox arrived at Garfield in ’71, he was charged with rebuilding a band program in shambles. He didn’t get around to jazz until 1979.

Even Brown acknowledges Acox as an early influence, while Acox himself credits Sherman and King. “[Sherman] put the bar high,” Acox recalls, [and] Waldo King may have had more of an influence on me than Hal.”

Garfield’s nine trips to Ellington stand in contrast to Chris Harshman’s band from South Whidbey, a school with fewer than 700 students, entering the big show for the first time.

But Harshman is no fool. He taught six years at Langley Middle School before moving up to South Whidbey, so some of his kids have been with him since sixth grade. He has a crackerjack band.

Can they win?

Or will the accolades go, yet again, to his brother Paul, making his fifth trip to Ellington, four times with Shorewood and once with his 1999 band from Kentridge?

We won’t know until Saturday, when the judges pick three bands to perform with Wynton Marsalis, who in turn will announce the first-, second- and third-place winners after the show.

“Hey,” Chris says, “whatever happens, it’s not going to bust up the family.”

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or