Practice, Resilience, and Passion: The Story of the MHS 7 O’clock Jazz Ensemble’s Journey to the Top


Roopa Shah

The 7 O'clock Jazz Ensemble

Rohan Shah

The 2017-2018 school year was promising for the 7 O’clock jazz ensemble, MHS’s premiere jazz group. Seniors Alex Warholic (University of Michigan), Tom Davis (Belmont University), Julia Zeimentz (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and other seniors hoped this year would be the band’s best, a fitting coda to four plus years of hard work. Not historically one of the nation’s top high school groups, the band had potential, and director Doug Brown could see it. It was evident during practice when a trumpet player would hit a hard note, plastering it to the far wall. Or when the rhythm section would effortlessly ease into a different feel. Or even when the trombone section, playing under a soloist, nailed their harmonic figure that perfectly accented the song. These were signs that the band was ready to take the next step, a step that would effectively throw their hat in the ring of a national competition.


As the band’s potential materialized, the journey to the Essentially Ellington Competition began.

“EE,” as it is commonly known, is the “Super Bowl of jazz band competitions,” according to director Doug Brown. Organized by Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and hosted by Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO), the competition is known for being the pinnacle of achievement for high school jazz ensembles. “They’ll take a handful of schools throughout the nation and put them out at Jazz at Lincoln Center for a couple of days, and everybody gets to play for each other and compete to see who the best band in the nation is this year,” says Brown. Although “it’s all in good fun,” Brown adds, this sentiment did not stop the band from taking the competition very seriously.

Deciding to send in a tape as an “audition,” the band began to ramp up practices and recording sessions. Two and a half hour long practices on Monday nights, recording sessions during the week, and sectionals throughout the week, the band was busy preparing. Months went by, and finally, the tapes were ready. However, the recordings were not perfect. Slight imperfections from the trumpet section rang out, here and there a shamble of notes would escape from the trombone section, and occasionally the rhythm section failed to sustain a swing groove. Despite these small flaws, the band submitted the recordings to Wynton Marsalis and the rest of JLCO, and the waiting began.

During these months, the band was on pins and needles, with thoughts such as “Do you think we got in?”, “Are we even good enough?”, cascading through the band room at any given time. However, after several weeks, they had their response. Gripping their instruments, knuckles white, their hearts pounding, the band listened as Mr. Brown delivered the news.

They had not been selected. In fact, they had been ranked 13th, and while they brooded, the top 12 bands in the nation were chosen to fly to New York City that spring.

It was a poignant ending for the seniors. Despite this, they wished the juniors and underclassman well and gave them all the luck they could for the next year.


Fast forward one year and the band has submitted again, however now without the graduated seniors. Despite this loss, the band has tapped into new talent. Adding multiple new members and promoting others, Doug Brown has said that “it is safe to say that this is one of, if not, the best the bands the school has ever fielded.” This powerhouse of a band is now more motivated than ever. The wounds of rejection from last year still sting, but the collective sentiment is one of determination. “. . .we kind of went in blind last year, we didn’t know how the scoring was gonna go, but just knowing that we were that close gave us that extra edge this year to push and try because we knew that it was right there,” says senior Ben Peterson when asked about last years results.

As lead trumpet and a senior this year, Peterson has a leadership role in the band. Sharing this role with other seniors such as Alexis Stahnke, Megan Andrews, Lucy Crosdale, Aaron Brenton, Max Newcomer, Peterson, and his peers have been the driving force behind the push to be accepted into EE.

With renewed vigor and intensity, this years band set off with a mission: be the first jazz band from MHS to go to New York City and play for Wynton Marsalis. A tall order, the band stepped up. Learning from past mistakes and leaving no stone unturned, they worked their fingers to the bone, practicing, listening, and learning. When the time came to submit, the band was ready. They had worked with notable artists such as Allen Vizzutti and Victor Goines, they had played gigs at venues across town, and they had listened to the jazz masters who recorded the original songs that they were learning. All of this in an effort to be one of the top high school jazz bands in the nation. Would history repeat itself? Would they fall short?


After being selected to attend EE, the band was ecstatic. The weight that had rested on their shoulders had been lifted; their work had paid off.


Now only two weeks away from touching down on the tarmac in New York City, the band is still in awe. “It is something we have been working towards, and to have our names be on the list with all those other schools, it’s incredible,” says Peterson. Sharing this sentiment, a proud Doug Brown ties the band’s success to the prior year, “all of [this] came from wanting something, and not immediately getting it, and then having to double down and say ‘do I really want this or was I just talking about it?’”

A true underdog story, the band is not expecting to win the competition, although that would be a bonus. However, they are eager, eager to play with other high school students and eager to learn from some of the best jazz musicians in the world. When asked if he was nervous to be standing in Rose Theater, central park in the background, with hundreds of other high schoolers silently watching, as Wynton Marsalis looks on, Peterson says, “It’s really nerve-racking, but we’ve been told all about how supportive the audience is, and at this point I’m just really excited to get up there and see what we can do.”

As the guitarist in the ensemble, I have had the privilege of working alongside these extraordinary talents. I have shared the feeling of rejection, and I have contributed to the newfound success this year. While there is a tough road ahead as we prepare for EE, I am sure that we will bring our energy to meet the challenge.

“Practice, resilience, and passion,” these are the three words Doug Brown used to describe the band, and these three words perfectly encapsulate the efforts of the band over the past two years. We have worked tirelessly, we have overcome the chip on our shoulders from last year, and we have thrown ourselves wholeheartedly into the music we love; this is how we made it and this how we will continue to be Middleton High School’s premiere jazz ensemble.