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Bright lights, big city & all that jazz

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The jazz band at Whiteland Community High School didn’t expect to make it when they auditioned for a national competition.

Director Peter Sampson had the band’s 17 students submit an audition for the contest, called Essentially Ellington, for the experience. Sampson thought the jazz historians and musicians who would critique the performance would have valuable feedback.

On Tuesday, Sampson got a call that the band was selected as one of the top 15 high school jazz bands in the country, and in May they will travel to New York to compete in the finals.

This is the second time an Indiana band has been selected for the Essentially Ellington finals — the first was Southport High School in 1999, Sampson said.

“It’s pretty ridiculous. It still hasn’t set in that we actually made it,” senior alto saxophone player Evan Ward said.

Sampson is waiting for details from organizers, including what set Whiteland’s jazz band apart from the hundreds of other bands that auditioned. He also has to start looking for donors and sponsors willing to help students afford the three-day trip.

Some members of Whiteland’s band and choir programs traveled to Philadelphia and New York in November to perform in a Thanksgiving Day parade, so a few students will be paying for their second out-of-state field trip this school year.

Essentially Ellington is sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and hundreds of bands from around the country typically apply to compete. That includes bands from fine arts high schools that specialize in developing students’ music skills, Sampson said.

To audition for the contest, Whiteland’s band performed and recorded three pieces of music: “Oclupaca,” “Echos of Harlem” and “Uptown Downbeat.” The recording was sent to jazz experts who listened to the performance without knowing what school it came from, Sampson said.

The band first applied for Essentially Ellington two years ago, and while he believed they had a strong audition, this year’s performance was better, Ward said.

Nearly all of the jazz band’s members are seniors who were a part of the first audition, and in the past two years the group has become more skilled at playing together and knowing how different members sound, band members said.

“We all know how each other play and how to sound good,” senior saxophone player Megan Beetler said.

Now, all of Whiteland’s students can hear what the band performed, as the high school is playing the audition music during passing periods.

When the band members receive the feedback from Essentially Ellington’s musicians and historians they’ll immediately start folding those suggestions into their daily practices, Sampson said.

“We’ll take whatever judgments we get on those comment sheets, and we’ll definitely put them into practice,” he said.

Sometime before finals, a member of the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra will travel to Whiteland and work with the band during rehearsals. During their three days in New York, the band also will have classes, music clinics and workshops.

“We just cannot wait to have this opportunity,” Sampson said. “I told (the students) it’s going to be jazz Candy Land out there.”

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