Coral Gables All-Star Jazz Ensemble to compete at Lincoln Center

Listen to the music

The Essentially Ellington events, May 10-12, including the final concert May 12, featuring the three top bands playing with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, will be webcast live on www. jalc.org/live or

Dan Strange is looking for perfection from his young students.

I Can’t Stop Loving You, a Don Gibson tune popularized by Ray Charles in 1962, sounds slamming. The rhythm section punches the pow-pow-pow accents Quincy Jones built into his arrangement of the familiar tune. The brass section’s blowing.

But Strange isn’t satisfied.

He thinks the take just done “sounds like game show music.” He tells the musicians gathered before him, “we’re not getting enough support from the saxes.”

Strange tells them the story of a famous jazz musician who got so enamored of a take in a recording studio, he shouted, “I can taste it!”

“What kind of stuff do you want us to taste?” asks bassist Leo Henkin, 17, a Gulliver Prep junior.

Henkin’s comment elicits giggles from the 17 high school musicians from eight schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties — from Coral Reef Senior High in Palmetto Bay to Dade Christian School in North Miami Beach — who make up the Community Arts Program (CAP) All-Star Jazz Ensemble.

The Ensemble, which practices at Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ, is among the best of the best in North America. It will compete in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2013 Essentially Ellington Competition & Festival, as well as participate in jam sessions with Wynton Marsalis. The Festival’s top three bands will solo with a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra during the main concert on May 12.

“It’s like meeting the people you see on records,” Leo said. “You think, ‘Wow, they are cool, they sound so good.’ It’s hard to believe they play like that and you’re playing in the same place as them. This blows me away.”

Among the 96 bands who entered the competition by submitting tapes, from which the 15 finalists were drawn, New World School of the Arts’ Jazz Ensemble from Miami will make its fifth trip to the competition, in addition to Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard Center for the Arts. These are the only jazz ensembles from Florida.

CAP, unlike the other two, is one of only four after-school programs to make the cut and the only group to do so whose base is a church.

And no one is happier, or more excited for his kids, who range from 14 to 19, than Strange.

“This hasn’t worn off, we’re actually going,” said Strange, also an adjunct professor in the jazz department at the University of Miami. “This was the time of year where we’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice...?’ Being our first time is probably going to be that much more memorable.”

Daniel Sagastume, 17, a senior at Coral Reef, is the All-Star’s charter member, having played baritone sax with the Ensemble since its formation in October 2009. Daniel plans to attend the New England Conservatory of Music in the fall and hopes to have a career like Ed Calle, a jazz musician and top session player who has appeared on recordings by Frank Sinatra, Arturo Sandoval, Gloria Estefan and the Bee Gees.

“I never want to give it up,” Daniel said. “I want to be one of those people who can say I went for my dream. Dan is the best director I could ever imagine because he teaches so much and helps the band progress. The experience I have had at Coral Gables Congregational these past four years is simply amazing.’’

Along with the music the All-Stars have been perfecting — the 15 finalists’ Essentially Ellington repertoire includes Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count, Clarence and Spencer Williams’ Royal Garden Blues, and Duke Ellington’s Bonga, Echoes of Harlem, Lightnin’ and Second Line — the conductor has drilled into his students that they should be among the first to congratulate the other teams when they hear them on the Lincoln Center stage.

“We will meet players from 14 other schools and I purposely said, ‘When we’re there, introduce yourself to everybody, have lunch with somebody you don’t know.’ We’re not the enemies here,” Strange said. “Maybe some groups don’t want to talk to us but we are there to share and show everybody what we do with our program. Would I love to win? Absolutely. But no matter what happens, we’ll come away from this with unbelievable memories and experience.”

Trumpet player Christian Garibello, 17, a Dade Christian School junior, agrees.

“It’s a big thing not only for me but for the rest of the people in the band,” he said. “It’s kind of like a sign of how much practice and hard work we’ve all put into our instruments. It was a big thing already getting into the band — but getting into Essentially Ellington is even bigger.’’

Musicians in the All-Star Jazz Ensemble must audition for their positions. And, unlike ensembles who are part of a school’s curriculum and who can practice daily, CAP meets only for three hours on Saturday mornings at Coral Gables Congregational. The All-Stars do, however, perform at outreach concerts, such as December’s Christmas concert at The Historic St. Agnes’ Episcopal Church in Overtown, on WDNA 88.9 FM radio and at the Coral Gables Museum.

Can they win?

“You never know what to expect,” Hart said. “We’re up against the top jazz bands in the U.S. and also up against bands in a curriculum who rehearse every day and we rehearse once a week. That was a big feather in our cap to know we still made it to the finals with the limited rehearsal time we had. This is a great opportunity for our kids to get to New York where they will be working with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra and spend some time with Wynton Marsalis. One of the best ways to learn is by listening.”

Mark Hart, the executive and artistic director of the CAP group, says the trip for four days in the Big Apple will cost $28,000. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided a matching grant of $10,000 and private donations and fundraising will make up the difference.

“It’s a once-in-a lifetime experience,” said Fernando Ferrarone, 17, a junior at Felix Varela Senior High in the Hammocks, who was chosen earlier this year to be a part of the Grammy Band in Los Angeles. There, he played trumpet and sax with Juanes and Chick Corea.

“Just going to New York, the center of the jazz mecca is already pretty intimidating,” Fernando said. “To say we’re going to play in Lincoln Center and meet all these guys, Wynton and the whole orchestra, is incredible. I’m pretty nervous. I’ve never been in the same room with so many greats at one time. This is going to be crazy!”

Todd Stoll, vice president of education for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington, now in its 18th year, was impressed with the Coral Gables kids. The finalists were chosen in a blind judging process.

“Coral Gables was one of the top bands. We’re excited having a new band that has never been a finalist before, it is phenomenal,” he said.

The competition is a part of the program, but Essentially Ellington’s primary goal is to provide free charts and other resources to band teachers and students. This year Jazz at Lincoln Center will have distributed 15,000 newly transcribed scores, including 104 previously unavailable big band scores by Ellington and other seminal composers.

“Wynton’s vision for this is that no kid should graduate jazz band without being exposed to the greatest composers and arrangers. They should know Ellington, Basie. It would be akin to graduating from Juilliard and not knowing Mozart. That’s what this program is about,” Stoll said.

Win or just soak it all in, Strange sees it all as a learning experience.

“People call this the Super Bowl of big band for high schools,” he said. “I like that pressure but it also means playing with the best.”

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