Under the direction of their scat-singing director, the Chantilly High School band students began to come together, hitting the notes on their trumpets, saxophones, trombones, guitars and piano in a way that would do Duke Ellington justice.
"You burbled on that first one," Keith Taylor said after taking his musicians through one challenging section of an Ellington composition five times in a row. "But that's close enough for jazz."
The Northern Virginia suburbs may not be the first place you'd look to find an award-winning jazz band. But the 17-member Chantilly Jazz is carrying on a tradition that has won it recognition from Downbeat magazine, invitations to jazz competitions and--this month--television appearances across the nation as part of a tribute to Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington 100 years after his birth in Washington.
The TV program, produced by the Fairfax Network and funded in part by the Fairfax County Public School system, features three Ellington numbers performed by Chantilly Jazz. From now until the end of the month, it is being transmitted by satellite to 100 sites in 23 states, mostly middle schools but also a community college in San Francisco.
"We were asked to be one of the bands that would demonstrate how the music is performed," said Taylor, 37, a 1980 graduate of Chantilly High and former Chantilly Jazz brass player who began teaching at his alma mater in 1987. To capture the real Ellington as much as possible, the band works from sheet music transcribed by professional musicians from Ellington's own recordings.
Although Ellington's heyday in the 1920s and '30s might seem like ancient times to today's Chantilly Jazz members, all of whom were born well after his death in 1974, the young musicians appear to be connecting with his music in ways that have delighted older jazz aficionados. That was evident when the group performed for the Washington Swing Dance Society last spring at Glen Echo Park and received a standing ovation.
"The kids are like sponges," Taylor said of the band's absorption of Ellington. "If you show them something pretty interesting, they'll latch onto it."
With Taylor directing, rehearsals combine explanations of techniques, such as the "doink" and the "growl," with scat-singing for the musicians to mimic and exhortations to jazz up their sound.
"Even if you crash, just hit it real authoritatively," Taylor told trumpeter Ryan Luu in a session Friday. "You're taking a sip of air when you should be taking a gulp."
Then, to no one in particular: "I want you to play the snot out of it."
And later: "You sound like you're playing with marbles in your mouth right now. Clean it up!"
The challenge now for Chantilly Jazz is to captivate young listeners just as the players have done with older ones, spreading an appreciation for this uniquely American musical form. That is what the one-hour TV program, "Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington," is all about.
"I was floored by the chance to be in front of kids my age across the country," said Mike Kirby, one of two drummers in Chantilly Jazz. "Usually we play in front of our parents in concerts. Having that kind of a chance is great. I took it very seriously."
Kirby, a senior who wants to play music professionally and teach, said he has been trying to introduce his friends to jazz. "I know the stuff they listen to came from this," he said.
Tracy Carstens, a senior who plays alto sax, was encouraged to join the jazz band by friends and now is eager to pass on the experience. "A lot of times, with friends who aren't in the band, I'll force them to come," she said. "I tell them, 'You know what classical music is, but you have to listen to this. This is cool.' "
"This stuff is intense," said senior Tim Goobic, who plays baritone sax. "It's so great compared to anything I've ever played before." Sitting in the Chantilly High School band room after rehearsal, he turned to his classmates and asked, "Do you ever listen to music and get chills? When I listen to Ellington, sometimes I get that feeling."
With its TV appearance already taped and produced, Chantilly Jazz is preparing for a winter concert at the high school and an entry next year in the annual "Essentially Ellington" competition at Lincoln Center in New York City. The band was a finalist in the contest in 1997 and 1998 and hopes to qualify again in 2000.
But perhaps the most fun is playing at swing dances, Taylor said, and the band looks forward to another opportunity to do that in the spring. In its appearance on a beautiful spring night in Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom earlier this year, Chantilly Jazz opened for the Stan Kenton Jazz Orchestra, a professional group that happened to be missing a sax player. After hearing Chantilly Jazz perform, the professionals invited Carstens to sit in with them.
"It was intimidating," she said. "I really look up to those guys."
Carstens performed so well that the orchestra invited her to play with them one night in September, but she wasn't able to make it because she is also drum major of the Chantilly High School marching band and had to be at a football game.
The daughter of a former Air Force major who plays bass guitar in an "oldies" band in his spare time and "loves to listen to jazz," Carstens said her ambition is to travel abroad, visiting "all the big music performing arts places" in cities such as Paris and London.
Eventually, she said, she'd like to teach music to high school students. Possibly, a new generation of Chantilly Jazz.
To listen to Chantilly Jazz's rendition of three Duke Ellington songs--"Rockabye River," "Harlem Airshaft" and "Peanut Vendor"--visit the Web site www.chantillyband.org and click on jazz bands.
CAPTION: Tracy Carstens, left, and Tim Goobic play solos during a Chantilly Jazz practice. The young musicians have enthusiastically embraced the music of Duke Ellington.
CAPTION: Director Keith Taylor teaches the musicians the "doink" and the "growl."
CAPTION: Chantilly Jazz trombone player Dan Huffman takes a break during a practice with the band.
CAPTION: Tracy Carstens makes a note on her music during rehearsal. She says she tells her friends outside of band, "You have to listen to this. This is cool."