I wish that Essentially Ellington could be something that each person that wanted to, could be a part of. In a world gone bad, Wynton Marsalis and the staff at J@LC each year provides a sense of hope, optimism, and inspiration for all involved. Many involved from J@LC say it's their favorite thing they do each year.
As I picked out the pictures to post here, (yes, I have many more LOL), one thing kept coming to mind. The word FAMILY!
Essentially Ellington spotlights everything jazz is. A coming together from all walks of life. A work ethic, commitment, and sacrifice, that all ends in excellence and leaves you will a feeling of accomplishment and joy!
I personally do not like competition in music much like the great John Clayton, however for the most part and the way we treat it at Byron, the competition aspect never really even enters the picture. It's a mindset of sharing and being able to relate to the others in attendance of everyones love for this music and spotlighting one of it's champions Mr. Duke Ellington.
EE was not around when I was in HS and that is a big regret. To have been able to play Duke Ellington's music when I was in school would have been such a game changer. That's why what Wynton and J@LC all do is so incredible. They do the front loading and the grant writing and the millions of dollars obtained so that basically any HS that wants to play this music can now do it free of charge. It is such an honor, privilege, and I will go as far as to say an obligation if you are a music teacher teaching jazz. Because of Wynton and J@LC, there are no more excuses to not play this music.
One of my dearest friends on the planet, Marc Townley, has chosen me to partner with him, for some reason, in facilitating an environment to allow jazz and the music of Duke Ellington to flourish, again made possible by Wynton and J@LC. ( Marc is not the only one, my dear friend, Mike Hamann at West Ottawa, has had me be a part of his program for many years now too, where I also get to work with the kids on the music of Duke Ellington, America's most prolific composer)
By the time I was teaching, J@LC was now sending the music out to the schools and I was the recipient of this amazing opportunity to play this music. Mr. Glenn Williams and I, combined our rival inner district high schools (there is that coming together there again) and had an amazing time working on the music and submitting a recording to J@LC. I also was able to help my Father out and work with his bands who also were sending in tapes to J@LC, now that the music became available.
When Marc Townley got the job at Byron Center, we sat down for many hours at Buffalo Wild Wings, lol, and anyone who knows Marc, knows of his organizing skills, we formulated a year plan, a 5 year plan, and a 10 year plan. This covered everything from curriculum, to guest artists, to festivals, and of course how Ellington would fit into the program. We dreamed of someday making Ellington, with Wynton and the J@LC, being our heroes. In 2016 that dream became a reality. I remember being filled with much emotion and being so proud of the kids and Marc, and just honored to be a part of this family.
It was then that you REALLY get to see just how wonderful J@LC is. Their commitment to excellence, the way they treat every single kid with respect, and in true Duke fashion operate in the Beyond Category.
J@LC first is located in NYC, so just that in itself is an entire culture shock for these kids that come from a school that is located across the street from a cabbage patch and one of the main attractions in the downtown was a statue of a chicken. (Side note: Byron is the perfect example of you can create a culture anywhere. There is no reason in the world why Byron should be a haven for jazz, but it takes one person with a passion and work ethic to make it happen. The kids bought in, and we now are having an ever increasing love for jazz from the kids and even the community) I remember my first time in NYC. It was in the McDonalds All-American Band marching in the Macy's Day Thanksgiving Parade. I just couldn't stop looking up and being completely overwhelmed by the overload of stimulation!
Jazz musicians are not about themselves like pop entertainers are, so J@LC members are very accessible to the students through this process or if you see them on the road. It comes from a mindset of passing on this music from generation to generation. That's how they learned and how we learn.
As we say to our students at MSU, "welcome home", it very much feels like home when you visit J@LC. Matter of fact it is called "The House of Swing"
The EE program follows somewhat of the same format in my experiences I've had with them. After being selected, J@LC, sends out a member of the orchestra or representative to come and work with your band. They also let the director choose a school in your area, that may not have the resources for something like this and they go work with that band also during the visit. Amazing really!
Once you get to NYC, you are assigned guide for your stay and a member of the band to also guide you in musical rehearsals. There are pre planned jam sessions, dinners for just the kids with members of the J@LC and assigned seating to meet students from the other schools. There are instrumental sectionals with members of the orchestra. A highlight for me is always the Q & A with Wynton. Wynton is always so honest, insightful, respectful, and direct. Some want to challenge him on the normal unfounded stereotypical criticisms he always hears, but what they don't know is Wynton loves that stuff from my observations. LOL You also get to hear the J@LC Orchestra play at least once if not twice. There is a cheer tunnel at the beginning that always makes you feel like a million bucks. A true celebration that seems like you are in a Mardi Gras Parade. Then probably the greatest part of the festival, the actual HS Band's Performances. Every band is swingin' on a very high level. So many incredible soloists from bands. Every band unless warming up or finishing their performance, listens to each other. The response at the end is one of jubilation which everyone gives each other standing ovations in support of a job well done. Who else knows how much preparation went into that performance than the other bands that did the same thing! (I keep saying and maybe the most special part , that's because everything is so special) the honoring of the band directors. Wynton does such an amazing job in honoring the directors, who very few people actually know how many hats a director wears, and the commitment and sacrifice, sometimes to their own detriment, that a director goes through. He will let the kids cheer them on, as they are on stage, for as long as 5 mins, and if it seems to die down, Wynton will keep it going, come on give it to them! It's a very emotional moment and to see my friend Marc up there getting what's due to him, is such a gratifying and emotional moment.
The biggest takeaway is that word FAMILY. All these pictures represent Family. Family you didn't know you had. Family you only get to see a few times a year. And most of all the Family that you came to NYC as. All the ups and downs, the sacrifice, the tears, the family that are the only ones that know what you have been through because you all went through it together.
Over the years, I have so many different families. I have a Take 6 family, a Wynton family, etc... Families are comprised of anyone that is associated with whomever the reason is for you being together. Marc, Amy, Megan, and Dave, are as concerned about the process and how you treat people that you come into contact with through the journey as they are as much as any note you play. That's why you see pictures of the kids with the door person, or staff people, etc.. We really are about gratefulness and building relationships and treating all people with respect. Something I also see with my friend and J@LC member Marcus Printup, who KNOWS the door person, the security guard, the stage hands, etc... It's truly a beautiful thing to see and witness and remind you to follow suit!
Our particular family at Byron, has a tradition of circling up before a performance, where we state what we want this performance to be about, reflections of how we got here. It is always a very emotional moment. I'm usually a blubbering idiot on the inside holding it together on the outside most times. Our first time at Ellington, we had our circle, then we had a few moments left so Marc let the kids just go and be with each other and hug and cry and get prepared for the moment. I know I was standing next to Marc, and I gave him a hug but I don't remember too many words because the moment and the journey spoke for itself. Couldn't have any more pride for the kids and Marc, and love for all the people at J@LC, standing in the house of swing. Getting full just thinking about it!
For me there was such a relief of this dream realized, and to get the monkey off our back, that even though I wanted to go back every year and have this experience again, I didn't feel the pressure anymore. It was something I wanted so bad for the kids, and yes me, (more to just be with multiple families at once), but was just not as uptight about it and not so disappointed when our name was not called like in all the previous years. I knew how hard the kids worked and that we were close, but to hear our name called was one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
There was one other very special situation that happened in 2016 EE. Marc's parents who I also call Mom and Dad. I have many. Both Marc and I had my father as our band director. As a thank you to my father, Marc's parents wanted my father to be able to celebrate this very momentous occasion, so they paid for my father to come out for the weekend to take part in all the activities. It was such a kind and thoughtful and honoring gesture and experience to be able to have my dad there too!
In 2017, the announcement happened again! "Byron Center Jazz Orchestra from Bryon Center, MI under the direction of Marc Townley" I'll just say ditto to everything said above. Still filled with emotion but different. Not like the first time but again so much pride and happiness for the kids and Marc. We tell them this is never a given and only achieved from hard work and sacrifice. The kids have total ownership of the group. Marc does not call sectionals, the kids do. "Mr. Townley, can we have a sectional at 6:30am tomorrow morning" Marc just says, "I'll be there to open up for you"
We did not make it in 2018 or 2019. It is not because the kids did not work hard or had bad attitudes. The fact of the matter is, these truly are the best HS bands in the country. The levels of these bands are sometimes better than some professional bands I've heard.
Fast forward to 2020 and 2021. We all know what happened. Most of the world shut down because of covid. I did not say all the world shut down, because J@LC, even though being very badly effected financially, still found a way, not easy and very painful to have this festival virtually. The fact that they tried to do anything speaks volumes to their commitment to these kids, that when so much has been taken away, we are still going to try and provide a glimmer of light. It's not like being there, but we are going to deal with the hand that has been dealt us, and we're still going to be there for the kids! The level of commitment by Wynton and the Education Department at J@LC is unparalleled. They had to make a lot of cuts which meant not having part of our family there like always which hurt but they still provided the opportunity the best they could.
One other event took place in January of 2020. J@LC hosted for the first time, an Ellington festival for Colleges and Universities. It was by invitation for this first one. MSU was one of those invited. It was a little different for me in the fact that I did not have any type of musical contribution to the kids being there (except 2 of my former trumpet students made the band). That's all Professor Whitaker and the faculty at MSU. The one thing that remained the same for me was just an incredible sense of coming together and family again. I have my MSU Family, my J@LC family, but also so many friends that were leading other bands like Jon Faddis, and Terell Stafford. Jeff Hamilton and Tanya Darby were a couple of the judges. It was really like a family reunion.
In my job at MSU, I also get to run the EE regional festival and it's always such a privilege to work with the staff at J@LC and are so grateful to be able to be a regional festival.
This has been forever long and I don't even feel I've even come close to expressing what this experience has been like. You should all watch the film documentary "Chops" to get a little glimpse of what it is like.
To Wynton, and all the J@LC Education staff past and present, (I'm specifically not naming anyone in the event that I forget someone), that makes it possible, thank you for these life changing experiences that we will remember and always have with us.
If you can find it in your means to help J@LC out please do. What they do for jazz, the arts, and education is truly remarkable and it would be money well spent! They need your help more than ever!
2016 Announcement; A video of the performance is not available on the EE Site
A selection from the 2017 performance
2021 Performance not on the site yet.
2020 MSU Jazz Orchestra 1 selection at the Jack Rudin Festival
2020 MSU Jazz Octet 1 selection at the Jack Rudin Festival
Max Colley III
Spirit Filled Jazz Musician