In 2020, Jazz at Lincoln Center was set to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the annual Essentially Ellington (EE) festival held in New York City. For the first time in history the renowned festival will instead be held virtually due to COVID-19. With EE going virtual this year, the lineup has expanded from the usual 18 US bands set to perform. This year, five international youth jazz bands from across the world were sent special invitations to perform at this year’s festival; one of them, the incredible Blackburn High School Big Band from Melbourne, Australia.
JMI was able to speak with Andy O’Connell (Blackburn’s Conductor) and Jason Ziino (Blackburn’s Director of Music) to discuss the upcoming festival and how Blackburn’s students have been preparing in isolation. We also discuss how the EE program as a whole has benefited Blackburn’s music program, as well as how the students have approached learning big band jazz since being involved in Essentially Ellington.
How did Blackburn High School first hear about EE and what has their involvement with EE been like thus far?
Blackburn High School first heard about EE when they participated in a “school music tour to Perth back in 2004” says Andy O’Connell, the big band’s Conductor. “We worked with Pat Crichton at WAAPA and he introduced us to the program working through some Ellington music and also gave us a bit of a look at the way the festival was running in New York.” “Fast forward to 2014 and after ten years of watching amazing performances online and benefiting from the incredible output of music from the Foundation” Andy says he “jumped at the chance to be part of the first Essentially Ellington Teachers Conference in Brisbane.”
This conference in 2014 was the start of the EE program launch within Australia. Jazz Music Institute (JMI) and Jazz at Lincoln Center partnered to present the Essentially Ellington Down Under Regional Festival right here in Australia, spanning across Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth.
Andy recalls it fondly:
“It was an email from Nick Quigley [JMI’s CEO], a chance to work with some of the players and clinicians from JLCO [Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra] in a real life, working band. It was not something I had to think too much about being part of. I remember being amazed at the depth of understanding that Vincent Gardner and Reggie Thomas had when they spoke of the music, and the way they would both launch into singing through parts of tunes. Their knowledge was experience based and it was deep. I felt like we were at the source of the well of knowledge.”
Without hesitation, Andy jumped into the program with the Blackburn High School ensemble as soon as the Regional Festival became fully launched in Australia. From 2015, Blackburn has been sending big band groups in to be part of the festival in Melbourne every year.
What is going to be Blackburn’s involvement in the EE Festival in NY this year?
The band’s Conductor, Andy O’Connell received a direct email from the EE Vice President of Education, Todd Stoll inviting them to take part in this year’s virtual festival. According to Blackburn’s Music Director, Jason Ziino, the Blackburn Senior Jazz Orchestra will be participating in the main section of the festival. They are also taking part in the Cheer Tunnel and a Q&A session with Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO. Wynton will also give feedback on each band’s performance as they are presented, and awards will be presented for outstanding sections and soloists.
Alongside many other incredible virtual events that will be broadcasted during virtual EE week starting from Monday, June 8th (which you can check out here), if you would like to catch Blackburn High School’s performance, they are scheduled to play 9TH during Part 1, which begins at 2PM EDT on Friday, June 12th (4AM AEST on Saturday 13th June). We have also received intel that they will be performing “Solid Old Man” from the EE library! How exciting!
What was Blackburn’s reaction when you found out you were playing this year’s EE festival?
Andy O’Connell’s reaction was as you would expect:
“There were two distinct thoughts that crossed my mind as soon as I read the email from Todd. First, it was immense excitement at the opportunity to be involved, and then the daunting realization of how difficult it was going to be to put it together. I think this was the same for all the students and staff as we processed it. I am so fortunate that I have an equally passionate musical director and staff that just grabbed the ball and went with it. The school admin team were 100% behind us and championed the project right from the beginning. With the health and well-being of all students and staff our first priority, we found ourselves being over cautious but also embraced the challenge and learnt so much in the process.”
Music Director, Jason Ziino commented that “the first reaction was excitement and validation for the work we have been doing” but it was unfortunate that the band wasn’t able to share their immediate excitement with one another in person because of the COVID-19 lockdown. He too made mention of the department’s hard work: “Andy O’Connell does an outstanding job running the band, but this is also a reflection of the work that is done by a whole team of people in the department. We moved pretty quickly however, to planning and problem solving how we could make it happen when our students were in isolation. The process was certainly a great experience for all involved, but I’m still not sure if the students fully comprehend what they are achieving!”
What has Blackburn High’s Big Band been working on isolation and how have they been preparing for the event in isolation?
Andy praises his department once more, stating that his “colleagues rose to the challenge so well, spending countless hours teaching technology rather than music, getting the students set up so microphones worked and so we could get some rehearsals and lessons working. We made great use of an online recording app/program called Bandlab. This enabled online rehearsals to happen where we could have small groups work and share parts. Real time playing was never an option due to time delay, but this actually made the students work exceptionally hard at matching sound, phrasing and articulation. Given the disruption of COVID-19, Andy made special mention that “the thing that really shone out time and time again as we worked online was just how much we missed playing together and how jazz by its very nature is a shared process. We needed to play together but we still needed to be safe.”
Andy talks us through the isolation process further:
“Stage two involved a few hours of running around and piecing together an isolated rehearsal space at school. I ran microphone lines into five different rooms, then headphone lines back out to each space. I had a control room where I could talk to all of them and we started organising sectional rehearsals, bringing the students in at different times, wiping down equipment between sessions. At one stage I had Dave Palmer (trombone) join us via Microsoft Teams. He ran a rehearsal with the trombones, and it all synced up perfectly. I was a little scared to touch anything and still to this day, I am amazed it all worked. Then with about four or five sectional rehearsals we rostered the sections into a local studio and they put down their parts without ever being in the room with each other. The band was very under rehearsed. There was plenty of singing of parts as we played through sections, it was more of a rehearsal than a recording. There was, of course, an abundance of excitement and there were a few moments where we just had one shot at parts or solos and they were just perfect. It was also so good to have them all play together even if they were in different rooms.”
And from this time in isolation, was the birth of the Blackburn High School Senior Jazz Orchestra COVID-19 Recording.
What are Blackburn’s thoughts on the Essentially Ellington program as a whole?
Blackburn’s Director of Music, Jason Ziino shared some insightful thoughts on how “for a long time, school stage bands have struggled to find their place in school music programs and not fully understood their relevance in the wider musical world.” Before EE, he says “it had been hard to find authentic repertoire and to have a real cultural understanding of the role of the ensemble. Essentially Ellington has provided not only resources, but a structured program that champions Jazz and places it in cultural context. By providing such open access to the musicians, it allow students and teachers to grow and see a clear pathway from the beginnings of jazz to today.”
Blackburn’s Conductor, Andy O’Connell heavily concurred, with a strong appreciation for the JLCO and the programs values and cultural, intellectual, traditional and thoughtful approaches to teaching jazz:
“The depth and value of the Essentially Ellington program is evident on so many levels. The access to resources is astounding, and it’s not just physical resources. It’s about the way these artists are so keen to share knowledge, so keen to see the seeds planted in a young generation. I love the way Wynton and the band often talk about the way we build human qualities of respect through the way we interact as improvising musicians. This is so much more than words and you can see it play out over and over again in the JALCO. Students learn through modelling and they need heroes.
Andy also mentions that he has never failed to be in awe of the way the clinicians worked so well with the students.
“I often stand back and wonder if the students really understand who they are working with (!)”
“Wynton and his band are heroes of culture, intellect, thoughtful approach to music, and bastion of traditional values that are lost in so many other current youthful pursuits. We see it in the way JALCO play and the way they conduct themselves. On top of this, the organization has a dedicated and organised approach to fostering jazz education in America and around the world. They are committed to training the teachers as much as working with the students. They are champions of the American traditions of jazz, but they embrace the global celebration of this art form.
The Essentially Ellington program goes as close as I have seen to reinforcing that music in general is where culture is fostered. Music education constantly needs to justify its existence, but this program takes a look at how music has built identity, brought people together and done this all through a world of pain and suffering. It lets high school students experience the joy of interacting together and communicating with far more than words. It also means they understand the power of community and they gain the strength and confidence to be themselves. It justifies music by example. No explanation required.”
How has EE Down Under benefited Blackburn High School’s music program?
Director of Music, Jason Ziino stated that: “The participation has not only helped with the education of our students, but also the validation of the work we are doing as educators. The students gain a greater understanding of the music and the reasons for the way it is played. This provides a stepping off point for how you apply that understanding to other forms of music. Music is music, there are just different dialects.”
Conductor, Andy O’Connell further states:
“Our involvement in EE Down Under has had a huge impact on an already vibrant music program. Blackburn High is a diverse program that endeavours to teach excellence in music across a broad range of disciplines and styles. The school has a history of an exceptional music ensemble program. EE is about music. It teaches an appreciation of music through a particular genre but its message can be applied to all music as well as non music pursuits.
EE has helped us to look at criteria within the jazz program that is important. The need to teach students that music is about interaction. This applies to written and improvised parts. It has helped us to re-enforce a culture of musical excellence and technical proficiency but to push hard at going beyond this into the intangible emotional space that music holds as its own. As staff, it continues to inspire our best practice approach and fuels our spirit of growth as better educators and the need to always impart our own love of music to the students by playing music with them and being the mentors we expect them to be to the younger students around them.”
Andy stated that his passion for the EE program definitely resonated with the entire music faculty of Blackburn High:
“Essentially Ellington stands for everything that we value in jazz education. We value the historical perspective, the way the music is so much more than notes on the page, the value placed on musical interaction, the high standard set by similar bands working within the EE framework and the inherent love of music and culture.”
What does Blackburn believe has been the most rewarding part of being involved in EE Down Under?
Andy O’Connell revealed that while it had been “rewarding and educational to watch various parts of the program online”, they “had always felt like spectators” watching the festival occur in the US. But since JMI started the Essentially Ellington Regional Festivals in Australia, it had “made it real for students and teachers” bringing “the whole program to a tangible place” for everyone involved.
“It has not just been about Ellington’s music either. It’s been about how to feel, how to play, how to experience a wide range of music that relates to the big band genre. The students have been shown pathways to travel in their listening. They have been plugged into the source and sent on a modern-day treasure hunt.”
Andy also mentioned that the program has made many “feel validated in their pursuit of this art form.” “We come to these musicians and this program with such respect for what they do and they do the same for us. The visiting artists are genuinely excited by jazz education in Australia. We have become part of a much bigger picture and the ‘house of swing’ is so much more than the building on Columbus Circle.”
Jason Ziino agreed, declaring that having the festival on our very doorstop was amongst the most rewarding part of all. By having “access to people such as Vincent Gardner and Jerome Jennings” it “makes it real to students, not something that happens in a far off land. They understand that what they are doing is real and achievable. It raises their expectations. The feedback that bands receive is invaluable in their development and is always about the spirit of the music. It is more a celebration of our playing than competing against others.”
What benefits have you found within your teaching practices from attending the teacher workshops?
Overall, Andy O’Connell expressed that EE had helped him implement some more practical examples of techniques into his teaching, specifically ones that are applicable to all styles of music. “We have introduced more singing of parts into the program. The EE program reinforces the understanding that music is essentially an aural process.
He quotes: ‘Playing will always reflect what we hear and when you can sing it, you can play it’.
Andy continued to reflect upon his development as a teacher: “We always return from our EE staff professional development days with a fresh outlook at high impact strategies. These are not always new ideas; sometimes you slap your forehead when you realise you have not been doing the most obvious or other times, it is groundbreaking! Last year they broke down the New Orleans Street March and gave an in depth look at how each part interacted with each other. We then went on to explore the March with the Senior Jazz Orchestra and ended up playing a tune of Wynton’s called ‘Sanctified Blues’ for the festival in New York this year.
“Teaching is ever evolving. EE has given me a much greater depth of understanding of Ellington’s music and how to get that sound out of my band. It has also led me on a listening journey and given me access to the beating heart of jazz. The history, the stories, the characters and the music. EE has given me so much knowledge and perspective in so many different ways.”
Jason Ziino expressed that it was “refreshing to see an educational approach of ‘it is not easy but teaching and learning can be simple’. For many of us, it was an affirmation that we are on the right track. It’s the little insights that have had the biggest impacts. Useful techniques that we can apply straight away in rehearsals and that result in big differences. The importance of those musical elements that should be obvious, singing, movement.”
A big thank you must go out to Andy O’Connell & Jason Ziino for their wonderful insights and passionate responses for this blog.
Once again, if you would like to catch the marvellous Blackburn High School Big Band perform they are scheduled to play 9TH during Part 1, which begins at 2PM EDT on Friday, June 12th (4AM AEST on Saturday 13th June). Here at the Jazz Music Institute, we wish them the best of luck and congratulations on such a massive achievement! Go you good things!
If you would like to learn more about Essentially Ellington Down Under, head here.
The virtual EE program is free, so please consider donating if you are able – no amount is too small.