Beginning on May 8, the 15 bands will compete for top honors and participate in workshops and jam sessions during the three-day event in New York City.
Beloit Memorial band director Chris Behrens, who has instructed during all four of the band appearances, has been pleased with the band’s past performances and is expecting the same this year. He feels that competition is stiff in the prominent festival, but the main reason for going is the experience rather than the spirit of competition.
"Last year we finished seventh out of 15, which is the best we’ve ever done," Behrens said. "All the bands that attend are incredibly good, plus many of them are community bands that draw from more than one high school. The band that won last year draws from 12 high schools. We don’t go out there too concerned about what place we are going to be in, we go out there for the experience and just try to play our best. Being around all those people that love jazz is a really special time."
For some of the students, this once-in-a-lifetime experience has stretched out to three years.
"It’s my family, this is my family. I’ve been so involved with it for the past couple years and it has taken me so many places and the feeling I get from the music is incredible," said saxophone player Sarah Koth, who will be making her third appearance at the festival. "The music really brings people together; it’s something we all share."
Trombone player John Marks, who is making his third appearance, says he can’t wait to get back onstage.
"You play in front of some of the best jazz musicians in the world," he said. "You look Wynton Marsalis, who is one of the judges, in the eye when you are playing onstage, which is intimidating but once you get off the stage it’s an amazing feeling. Everyone is cheering for you."
Katie Oldenburg, who will be making her second appearance, says she’s anxious to get back onstage.
"When you are up there everyone in the audience is feeding off what you are doing because they all understand jazz," she said. "I thought I was going to be super nervous the first time, but once I went up it all just went away and I just played."
Saxophone player Niall Gillen, who is going for his first time, is looking forward to being part of a group of great musicians.
"It’s a chance to be in the jazz headquarters of the US," he said.
For drummer Steffon Marshall, also first-time participant, the trip will be a chance for the group to show off their hard work and dedication.
"I am proud of these guys, especially for many of them who are going for their third year in a row," he said.
"Last year it was just cool to go to New York," said guitarist Alex Aceves. "I’ve never been really out there in a big city, it was really exciting. And just to see all the lights at night was really cool. I felt kind of like a little kid in a candy store. I am looking forward to meeting the musicians that I listen to at home."
As part of the competition, Jazz at Lincoln Center will send a jazz musician and educator to Beloit Memorial High School for an intensive four-hour workshop of rehearsals, lessons and master classes.
"It’s always really great for the band," Behrens said. "The musician focuses on how to improve what we are already doing, and how to bring the music to life. They send someone different every year. They help kick us up another notch."
The Essentially Ellington program also will provide free workshops to one of the schools in the district. The free finalist clinics are part of the rich 19-year history of this unique music education program, which has reached more than 504,000 students in more than 4,200 high schools across all 50 states, Canada and American schools abroad, according to a news release.
The first half of the final concert on May 10 will feature the three top-placing bands performing with a member of the world-renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as guest soloist.
The second half will feature the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, whose members serve as mentors for the finalist bands throughout the weekend. The festival concludes with an awards ceremony honoring outstanding soloists, sections and the announcement of the three top-placing bands.