Thursday, January 28, 2010


Dear Duke Ellington,

Last night, at the Main Arts Theatre in Royal Oak, MI. I attended a screening of Bruce Broder's documentary "Chops". Broder followed the Douglas Anderson High School of the Arts jazz band in Jacksonville, Florida as they prepared for the prestigious "Essentially Ellington" competition, which is held yearly at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, The jazz musicians at Douglas Anderson are something to behold. They were enthusiast and attentive, The students embodied a genuine respect for your musical legacy, and they were serious about mastering your music.

The students weren't cocky or undisciplined at all. They encouraged each other. They horsed around some, but when it was time to practice, they were all business. Their humility amazed me. They always felt they could play better. TJ-a trombone player and the most polished and talented of the bunch-said he practices religiously because he wants to be an exceptional musician not a mediocre one. That was the mindset of the youngsters as they learn your music.

Duke, Douglas Anderson had some stiff competition. Battle Ground High School and Garfield High School, two bands from Seattle were formidable. They'd competed at "Essential Ellington" before, and they appeared to be more confident. However, they were robotic and they couldn't improvise. Douglas Anderson had an edge. They were taught to infuse the music with their emotions, and they spent a lot of time learning how to swing thanks to Ron Carter, a Duke Ellington clinician from the Lincoln Center, The school hired Carter to teach the band the mechanics of swing. Carter broke down the basics of swing and fed it to each student like Halloween candy.

The day of the competition, Douglas Anderson was still not sure they could wipe out the competition. Duke, they did, and you would've been proud of them. They were the last band to perform. While the other bands played, they watched from the audience. The pressure was on. Douglas Anderson didn't buckle. They played your blues "Black & Tan Fantasy". It was a brave move to play a blues when. The other bands played your swing tunes. Here's the thing that floored the capacity audience and the judge, which include trumpeter Wynton Marsalis: midway through the blues Douglas Anderson through in a chunk of the ditty when the "Saints Go Marching In" The audience went ballistic. After their performance, the late 60 Minutes anchor Ed Bradley said Douglas Anderson who more polished, and had better solos. Bradley was certain they were going to win the competition. Duke, they won hands-down.

It's hard to make me cry, I don't cry at funerals, but when those kids from Douglas Anderson finished and the crowd cheered like they're at the Super Bowl I became unglued. Broder did a wonderful job chronicling how music and dedicated teachers who believe in their students can bring out the greatness in them.

Thanks for the music,
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