Four Swinging Schools on Seattle’s North Side

Originally published in Earshot Jazz July 2011

“There is definitely something up in the Seattle area, in the water, that just breeds great jazz ensembles,” claims Erika Floreska. She’s Education Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center speaking in the 2007 documentary film Chops about Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools in the Essentially Ellington Festival.

It isn’t the water in Seattle that breeds jazz. It’s the teachers in public middle schools that stock tributaries for their counterparts in high schools downstream. And all of these teachers rely on a support system of parents who tirelessly volunteer and raise money to pay for additional coaches and long-distance travel expenses.

Most national recognition for turning out high-quality young Seattle jazz students goes to Garfield and Roosevelt High School bands led by Clarence Acox and Scott Brown respectively. Perhaps a more fitting word would be respectfully. Together, Garfield and Roosevelt have placed in the top three bands for the last eleven years of the Essentially Ellington Festival competition in New York City. But four more schools on Seattle’s North Side are swinging students into the groove of jazz—Ballard, Eckstein, Hamilton, and Nathan Hale.


Ballard High School is entering the Essentially Ellington elite. Of one hundred ten festival entries from across the country, Ballard’s Jazz Band 1 tape this year ranked among the top twenty. Michael James, now in his seventh year directing the band, was awarded a scholarship of tuition, travel, room and board to attend Jazz at Lincoln Center’s four day Band Director Academy in June. The focus of this year’s camp will be big band rehearsal techniques.

At 7:00 AM in the band room, a fresh pot of Count Basie’s band playing “Shiny Stockings” percolates over the sound system while twenty one students arrange chairs and music stands for rehearsal. One of the piano players improvises along with the recording while trumpet players warm up their lips with musical exercises.

Although the school may feel new from its 1999 renovation, the music tradition here stretches back much farther. A sign on the band room wall reads, “‘Music is the soul of our school’—Phil Brockman (Donated to Mr. James by the class of ’08, your first senior class).” This quote came from Brockman when he played at a Ballard band alumni concert. Brockman, a trumpet player, graduated from Ballard in 1976 and served as principal from 2004 to 2010.

James counts off Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe” and the saxophones launch into a rollercoaster of eighth-note arpeggios. The brasses punch accents on cue from the director’s left hand. All eyes are fixed on the written music. After the run through, James points out specific measures for improvement. Several heads nod silently in agreement. The lead saxophone, trombone, and trumpet check their intonation with the piano. Then the rest of the instruments tune to the leads.

Next up is Horace Silver’s “Filthy McNasty” and a student comments, “Yea. It’s good stuff.” The section leaders weave through the melody, smoothly switching between swing and straight eighth-note rhythms. Notes pop with tongued articulations.

James says, “Let’s move on to ‘Everyday I Have the Blues’” “Aw, yeah,” responds a student. The first count off is too fast but Thomas Varas lays down the Count Basie piano introduction flawlessly. The second try gets waved to a stop after just ten measures. “Drums, if you start that loud you have nowhere to go.” The third time locks in at the right volume and strutting tempo. Without a microphone, Sean Gallagher belts out the Joe Williams lyric over the entire band. After ad libbing tenor saxophone fills under Gallagher’s singing, Ruby Fore smiles and gently rocks with the groove.

Next, James discusses logistics and permission slips for a one day tour of four nearby schools—McClure, Whitman, West Woodland, and Salmon Bay. The Ballard Vocal Jazz Choir will share the program. McClure and Whitman Middle Schools feed students to Ballard but do not have instrumental music programs of their own. These concerts extend an early invitation to potential musicians.

The rehearsal ends with a swinging dance band arrangement of “Beauty and the Beast.” The musicians are clearly having fun. Lead trumpet player Sam Zisette whispers to the rest of the trumpet section explaining the proper way to phrase one delicate passage. It’s not even 8:00 AM and he confidently caps the song’s ending with a high F.


Across town at Eckstein Middle School, the patina of the band room floor shows years of heavy traffic. Daylight filtering through the glass brick walls casts a magical glow on several trophies displayed in one corner. A fish eye mirror hangs strategically on the rear wall so the director can monitor idling percussionists. A large Korg tuner on the front wall helps students check their intonation visually.

Informational posters with musical notation and keyboard notes remind students of important basics. Photo collages documenting many years of trips to jazz festivals cover entry way walls next to photographs of famous jazz musicians – Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Henderson, Count Basie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. A sign warns, “Caution: Music will arouse your senses.”  A bulletin board advertises local private teachers.

Award winning band director Moc Escobedo has been developing bands at Eckstein for fourteen years. With one hundred and sixty students enrolled in three bands and a vocal jazz choir, the senior jazz band alone is scheduled for seventeen performances during this school year. Both the jazz choir and senior jazz band won first place at this year’s Reno Jazz Festival.

“Aggressive” is the word Escobedo uses to describe his approach. His energetic high pitched whistle cuts through the din of thirty six musicians warming up. He boldly reaches to pull a saxophone out of the mouth of a student sitting in the front row.

Escobedo counts off a chorale from Jim Mahaffey’s “10 Minute Jazz Warmup” followed by a blues to give four musicians a chance to solo. Today’s goal is to put finishing touches on a program for the Bellevue High School Jazz Festival.

The palpable excitement in the room jumps a notch when Escobedo sets up the funk/rock beat of Alan Baylock’s “Two Seconds to Midnight.” Escobedo’s right hand conducts the tempo while his left hand crisply indicates dynamics and cut offs. He loudly claps accents. He scrunches up his face to mime emotions of each phrase. He choreographs all the musical parts by moving his entire body.

Next up is J. J. Johnson’s ballad “Lament” featuring a choir of trombones. Two trumpet players put their bells together and jokingly try to share a mute. Escobedo rearranges some chairs and music stands while the band swings through Joey Calderazzo’s “Midnight Voyage.”

On the first time through “Everyday I Have the Blues” a squawking plunger trumpet solo by Max Rose substitutes for vocals. The singer Claire Prestbo arrives and signifies her own lament on the band’s second time through the chart. Then she tosses off the Cole Porter standard “Easy to Love.” The arrangement features a unison bebop line blending two trombones, tenor sax, and voice.

With a few minutes left Escobedo tries a chart new to the band—Sammy Nestico’s “The Heat’s On.” He taps his baton loudly and steadily on the music stand to create an insistent metronome. Two students jump up to jitterbug in the doorway. After rehearsal ends, some saxophonists keep jamming. This feels like a party! 


The party is calmer but getting bigger at nearby Hamilton International Middle School where director Dan Rowe oversees a rapidly expanding program. Two years ago, half of Washington Middle School’s students switched to Hamilton and the program was upgraded from part to full-time. Elizabeth Knighton runs an introductory instrumental music program at all six elementary schools that funnel students to Hamilton. Even though the band room is new and attractive, the increasing enrollment will force the program to move into a larger space elsewhere in the building.

Rowe worked with Escobedo at Eckstein for seven years and is in his third year at Hamilton. He scheduled twelve performances for the senior jazz band this school year, including a trip to Moscow, Idaho for the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival.

Rowe is polishing the band’s program for the Glacier Peak Jazz Festival in Snohomish, Washington. He needs to time the band’s set and check that it fits in the twenty minute window allowed by the festival rules. He counts off Sammy Nestico’s “The Queen Bee” then follows with Johnny Green’s standard “Out of Nowhere” which features the singing of drummer Miles Trieger. Alto saxophonist Emma Krontz takes the spotlight on Nestico’s ballad “Samantha.” The set ends with Thad Jones’ “Us” that contrasts a funk/rock vamp with an unaccompanied brass choir. Afterwards some of the trumpet players don’t want the song to end and continue to sing their parts. The program runs two minutes too long. Rowe chooses the unpopular but necessary solution to cut some solos.


Farther north at Nathan Hale High School, Brian Goetz is turning the band program around after a sequence of teacher turnover shrank enrollment. Goetz studied under Escobedo at Eckstein, graduated from Nathan Hale in 2001, earned a music degree at the University of Washington, and taught in the Wahluke School District before taking the job here in 2009. Last year the band performed at Disneyland and this year will travel to Victoria, British Columbia.

The facility is crisp and clean from this year’s renovation. The high contrast of white floors, walls, and ceiling with black seats and stands feels a little sterile but Goetz thinks decorations will help. Warm sounds from David Nolet’s Vocal Jazz Choir rehearsal next door drift in through the air vent.
At 7:30 am Goetz takes attendance and thanks the nineteen students for being on time. To help the students hear each other better, he assembles the trumpets, saxophones, and trombones in a semicircle. After a brief unison long tone warm up, Goetz counts off Quincy Jones’ ballad “For Lena and Lenny.” A few false starts prompt Goetz to ask, “If you were an audience member would you want to dance to this? What can we do to make you want to dance?” One student suggests, “I think we are playing it kind of tense.” Goetz checks a chord voicing in the trombone parts then holds a brief trumpet section rehearsal.

Next Goetz decides to change direction and counts off Neal Hefti’s “Cute” at a brisk clip. Thomas Campbell lays down some tasty drum fills using brushes. Goetz picks up his trumpet to demonstrate some phrasing and articulations. After the bell rings, a trumpet player strolls over to play a musical figure for the piano player.


Students not only teach each other, they frequently teach the teachers. Rowe admits there is no one way of doing anything and teachers need to be able to adapt to the constantly changing needs of students. “Know your jazz,” he recommends. “Have clear ideas on how to impart this knowledge. Don’t be shy about asking questions of everyone and everything connected to teaching jazz. There are some truly amazing teachers in our area that are just a phone call away.”

Escobedo confesses that his education classes did not prepare him for teaching jazz. He suggests teachers take private lessons on all the rhythm section instruments. He says, “The most challenging part of the job is trying to get students to live up to their potential.”

If the secret of Seattle school jazz is in the water, could its source be the syncopation of salmon leaping with the urgent dance of life? Is it born in the free flowing streams celebrating emancipation from frozen mountaintops? Does it stem from riffing improvisations to find another word for rain—precipitation, shower, sprinkle, drizzle, pennies from heaven… Maybe. Or it could be persistent work in the classroom that makes the difference. Every week students are listening, learning, practicing, and perfecting. Thank you, teachers.

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