Sun Prairie Jazz Band Heads to “Big Apple”—Again

This week marks the 11th time Steve Sveum’s group makes the cut for the “Essentially Ellington” finals

If high school jazz bands were a sport, we would say that we are living in the shadow of a major musical dynasty. Call it what you will—and feel free to use hyperbole—but the fact that the Sun Prairie High School Jazz Ensemble I is going to Lincoln Center this week is a remarkable achievement. For the 11th time in the 22-year history of “Essentially Ellington,” Steve Sveum and his band of 18 players will compete (and work with) Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center staff.

There was no ongoing presence of jazz in America’s premier arts complex until Wynton Marsalis came along. One of a number of siblings whose father was an established jazzman, Marsalis took the music world by storm in the early 1980s by winning Grammys for both classical and jazz albums in the same year—an unprecedented feat. After a decade of spearheading yet another revival of jazz, particularly traditional giants of the genre, the forces that were at Lincoln Center basically created Jazz at Lincoln Center by and for Wynton Marsalis.

Marsalis wasted no time in turn establishing a new outreach and festival-style competition that would both spur the growth of young jazz musicians and honor the legacy of a true jazz legend. The result was “Essentially Ellington.”  The gist of the project was to transcribe original performances of Ellington’s work, and distribute them each year to about 4500 high school programs. Any band can then submit an audition tape to JALC, and the top 16 finalists travel to the Big Apple for an unforgettable three-day event.

Steve Sveum is well along in becoming a local legend; an alumni of SPHS, class of 1980, he began teaching at his alma mater in 1985. He first cracked the finals of Essentially Ellington in 1998. For the first ten or fifteen years, the entry rules made it extremely difficult to return in consecutive years, but Sveum’s bands managed to go close to every other year, and have made the occasional consecutive trips following the rules change.

This week marks their 11th journey to the big stage, but there is nothing routine about it. No one in this year’s band is younger than a junior in high school, and the majority of the players are in Jazz Ensemble I for the first time this year. Not surprisingly, Sveum long ago put the framework of a feeder program in place, with jazz bands at all the lower and upper middle schools in Sun Prairie, and multiple jazz ensembles at the high school. It’s a lot like working your way to junior varsity, then varsity—and it is easy to hear how much work goes into it.

We had the latest opportunity for this tangible evidence Sunday night, as the group held a fundraising kick-off concert. It was a wonderful complement to having heard a five-hour session just the week before of the Capital City Jazz Fest. That event had been notable for (among other things) the electricity brought by the younger players who are already making headlines in the jazz world at large. One of them was the thirty-something trumpeter, Bria Skonberg, and she had spent some time while in town working with the Sun Prairie group.

Sunday night’s program opened with a selection of “other” jazz composers, the Ellington competition numbers  being saved for the close. From Benny Carter to Count Basie to Thelonius Monk, the students revealed clean lines, always in tune, solid grasp of subtly different styles, and we had the added treat of a couple of numbers with a small group backed by rhythm.

One would have to name them all to be fair, but we must pass out some individual kudos. Jennifer Lamprech on piano simply does it all; the most experienced, this being her third year in the band, she can handle solo lines and back the small ensemble work with equal ease. Kyra Devlin is a junior and in the band for the first time—she plays at least half a dozen instruments, but her work on alto sax is truly special. Likewise for trombone player Andrew Paulson, tenor sax Bennett LeClaire and trumpeter Joey Rockman.

Speaking of Mr. Rockman, yes he’s part of those triplet brothers insanely talented in music and dance, and his brother, Robert, plays guitar, banjo and vibraphone. The latter was a feature in the closing set which included “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” But Rockman was hardly the only star in that chart; it proved a major vehicle for vocalist Jaelyn Potvin, who a few times during the concert produced a memorably smoky sound that could also flip a switch and rise to a great “belt” voice.

And so they’re off to NYC, and the best part is, if you can get to a streaming device, you can hear all the Festival performances at The geographic range of this year’s groups is expansive, from Washington, Arizona, Texas, Florida, parts of the Midwest, New Jersey—and Cuba! Oh, and have no fear…it’ll swing. Go Cardinals!

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