NEW YORK — The American Music Program of Portland, Oregon, has won Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington high school jazz band competition after an emotional performance honoring its ailing director.
Wynton Marsalis, JALC's Managing and Artistic Director, presented the band with the first-place trophy and a $5,000 award at Saturday night's finals concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall.
Last year's winner, the Tucson Jazz Institute, took second place, while Lexington High School from Massachusetts finished third.
Marsalis, who helped judge the competition, said he was impressed that the Portland band played one of Duke Ellington's most difficult pieces, "The Tattooed Bride," from memory.
The student musicians dedicated their performance to their director Thara Memory, Marsalis said.
Memory, who founded the American Music Program in 2005 as a regional jazz youth orchestra, has been in poor health in recent years due to complications from diabetes.
"There's an emotional commitment to playing 'Tattooed Bride' from memory. No professional group does that," Marsalis said backstage. "American Music Program wanted to play that for their band director, Thara Memory. They love him. They wanted him to feel it. ... For this band to play at that level, it was a great achievement."
Memory won a Grammy with his former student Esperanza Spalding in 2013 for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists for the song "City of Roses" from her album "Radio Music Society." The track also features students from the American Music Program.
The three-day Essentially Ellington competition featured 15 finalist bands — chosen from among 88 entries — performing Ellington compositions.
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