San Diego Students Compete in 'Essentially Ellington' Jazz Competition

SD Jazz
The Jazz Ensemble of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing ArtsSD School of Creative and Performing Arts

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By Sylvia Cunningham

When Dr. John Reynolds was being interviewed for a teaching position at the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts a few years ago, he made a promise.

“He said to me, ‘Give me four years, and we will be on the national stage,’” said Richard Trujillo, the artistic director at the school.

Now as Reynolds and his Jazz Ensemble of 25 young musicians take on New York to compete in Jazz At Lincoln Center's prestigious Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival, Trujillo can say Reynolds kept his word.

“He’s just such a dedicated teacher,” Trujillo said. “He’s just so committed and so passionate.”

Reynolds, who is a professional trumpeter and holds a doctorate of musical arts, joked that although he wishes he could take all the credit, it’s due to his students’ hard work that they’ve achieved the goal he set.

“There’s a real deep soulfulness that exists in this group, and I think that really carries over into our music,” Reynolds said. “I think when you see the band play, you can tell that they’re really having a good time on stage.”

The population at the San Diego SCPA is diverse; more than a third of students are Hispanic, a little less than a quarter are Filipino, nearly 15 percent are Black and close to another 15 percent are Caucasian. More than half of the student body receives free or reduced lunches.

Trujillo said some may face challenges in their home life, but the students are united by their passion and a desire to succeed.

“Out of adversity comes some of the most brilliant artistry, and that’s from a historical perspective and it certainly holds true to what we do here,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo said the demeanor of the student musicians in the Jazz Ensemble echoes that of their teacher - calm, reserved, “cool.” But that was not the case when Reynolds broke the news that out of nearly 100 high school jazz bands that entered the competition across North America, their group had been selected as one of the 15 finalists that would perform at Jazz at Lincoln Center from May 5 through May 7.

Reynolds played it cool when he told them: He started off with the bad news. Since he had started teaching at the school, he took the group to the Reno Jazz Festival - they had even begun to fundraise for this year’s trip.

The Jazz Ensemble of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts

“I came in and said, ‘We’ve had some logistical things fall through. There’s no way that we’re going to be able to do the Reno Festival this year,’” Reynolds recalled. “And I let that kind of sink in for a second, and then I said, ‘Because we have to go to New York,’ and of course they were all screaming and hollering.”

Trujillo said watching their unbridled enthusiasm was something special.

“It was kind of like our version of a football team winning the state championship. They went nuts, and once they came back down, they were all cool cats again,” Trujillo said.

Raising the funds for the trip was a combined effort between Reynolds, the school, and a group of parents who support the jazz program. Because they raised more than $30,000, Trujillo said it was possible for all students to travel without dipping into their own pockets.

“Sometimes you need the village, and the village came through,” Trujillo said.

Reynolds said being part of the festival is a dream come true for him and his students, the majority of whom had never been to New York before.

“Being able to rub shoulders with some of the finest living musicians today is really a big deal,” Reynolds said. “It’s one of those life changing events that I think is going to reverberate for a long time.”

The Essentially Ellington finalists will perform and compete live from Jazz at Lincoln Center on Friday and Saturday.

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