Community, Students Get Set for New York Premiere
The Coral Gables Congregational Church’s Community Arts Program All-Star Jazz Ensemble is one of the 15 finalists, and one of only four community ensembles, in the 2013 Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival, taking place from May 10 to 12. The sound of “Echoes of Harlem” is unmistakably Ellington’s, without over-simplifications or apologies, regal and swinging — even if played in tank tops and flip-flops. It’s just another rehearsal for the Coral Gables Congregational Church’s Community Arts Program All-Star Jazz Ensemble, but it’s a special one. There are just a handful of Thursday evenings left before the band plays in the finals of the 2013 Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival in New York City. Of the 15 finalists, South Florida will be represented by three ensembles: The Dillard Center for the Arts, Ft. Lauderdale; the New World School of the Arts, Miami, and this All-Star Jazz Ensemble, one of only four community bands chosen nationwide. “This is awesome,” says Daniel Sagastume, 17, the band’s baritone sax and a student at Coral Reef High School. “I never really thought I would have the possibility of something like this. This is something special.” Daniel Strange, the director of the Ensemble, says that when they found out that had reached the finals “we were overjoyed.” “We rehearse just one night a week, two and half hours and this is the Superbowl of high school jazz band competitions,” says Strange, also an adjunct professor at University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. “For us to be one of the finalists it’s huge. These guys will never forget this experience.” The event includes not only the competition, but also workshops, jam sessions, and other activities. As an added incentive, the three top finalists will get to perform with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, as guest soloist. Already trumpeter Marcus Printup, drummer Ali Jackson, and trombonist Elliot Mason, current members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, have visited Coral Gables to work with the band. The All-Star Jazz Ensemble started with only 13 members, not enough for a big band, in 2009. According to CGCC literature, the Ensemble experience was “designed to sharpen sight reading, style, technique, improv, rhythm, recording studio skill, college prep and career development through the practical study and performance of jazz repertoire that spans the standards to newly-composed works.” It was perhaps the most visible piece of an ambitious, evolving program. While the CGCC has had a Summer Concert Series since 1985, it instituted its Community Arts Program in 2002 with the arrival of Mark Hart, executive and artistic director. That same year, the church established the Conservatory for the Arts, an after-school program with the purpose to “make music education accessible to all kids,” explains Hart. “So even if they have financial difficulties, we make it possible for them to have a teacher and learn music. Our Saturday program is based on a sliding scale depending on what a parent can afford, it can go from full scale pay to nothing.” The program includes several ensembles — including the Junior and Intermediate Orchestras, the Advance Chamber Ensemble, a Jazz Prep Band and the All-Star Ensemble — and its own recording label, CAP Records. “When I started we had seven kids on a Tuesday evening,” recalls Hart. “Right now we have close to 125 kids in the program.” Students must audition for the All-Star Jazz Ensemble, explains Strange, the director, “and we get the best players of each school. We’ve had good quality players from New World, Gulliver, Ransom Everglades, Coral Gables, Coral Reef, Felix Varela …. What’s interesting is that this is the best band we’ve ever had, yet this year we don’t have any players from the top fine arts schools.” Sagastume, the bari sax player who next year will be attending New England Conservatory in Boston, didn’t have any experience in playing a large jazz ensemble. “When I joined I had just got into high school and I wasn’t part of the band in my school,” he says. “We didn’t have a real jazz band, so when I got in here it was awesome. It’s been the best experience. We play such good literature. We play great classics from the Count Basie band or Glenn Miller. You don’t get this kind of exposure in a high school band because you get lower level [arrangements] Here we are playing the real deal.” The Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ is located at 3010 De Soto Boulevard, (across from the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables. For more information call 305-448-7421, ext. 120 or check CommunityArtsProgram.org.