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Jazz Orchestra Sole Michigan Competitor at Ellington Contest

It’s about hard work, passion, good role models and all that jazz, high school musicians said in anticipation of competing this spring at top national festivals in Savannah, Georgia and New York City.

The accomplished 23-member jazz orchestra is the only Michigan high school band – one of just 15 across the country – named a finalist in the 21st Annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition, May 5-7. The only other school in the state ever to qualify was Interlochen Center for the Arts in 1998 and 2003.

“It’s amazing,” said Band Director Marc Townley. “It’s really a dream come true. It’s been the ultimate goal since we started the jazz program 11 years ago.”

Logan Arkema, a junior piano player, called the achievement “incredibly humbling.”

“To think that we get to do this is so hard to wrap our minds around,” he said. “It just makes us want to work harder and convince ourselves that we actually do deserve this.”

It is also the third year in a row that the Byron Center ensemble has qualified  to compete at Swing Central Festival, in Savannah, Georgia, a workshop and competition held annually at the Savannah Music Festival. While the Northview High School Band also qualified to compete this year, Byron Center was the only Michigan band to qualify for two consecutive years. This year’s festival is scheduled March 30-April 1.

Junior Lauren Elliott plays the baritone saxophone
Junior Lauren Elliott plays the baritone saxophone

Playing with the World’s Best

The Essentially Ellington festival will include workshops, jam sessions, rehearsals and a performance before esteemed judges Lauren Sevian, Jeff Hamilton, Chuck Israel, Chris Crenshaw and Wynton Marsalis. The three top-placing bands will perform with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis to conclude the festival.

“The standard for this festival is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” Townley said. “These groups that make it to this are insanely great. We are just thrilled and humbled to be in this company.”

The Byron Center band will perform Duke Ellington’s “Magnolias Dripping with Molasses,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “The Shepherd.”

Students who worked to grow the Byron Center program helped set the stage for this year’s band, said jazz orchestra members. “It’s a testament to what the jazz bands before us have done,” said Austin Muthyala, a junior trumpet player.

♥“Being able to say that we changed the game and were able to take it to another level is a such an honor, said junior Lauren Elliott, a junior baritone saxophone player.

Known as one of the most innovative jazz education events in the world, finalists were selected from 100 high school jazz bands that entered the competition. Each school submitted recordings of three tunes performed from charts from Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington library.

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Essentially Ellington

Swing Central Jazz

SNN Article on Last Year’s Savannah Festival

The Byron Center Jazz Orchestra, directed by Marc Townley, in rehearsal
The Byron Center Jazz Orchestra, directed by Marc Townley, in rehearsal

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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