Area high schools take three of 15 spots in Super Bowl' of national jazz competitions


SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. - Three southern Wisconsin high schools are among 15 chosen to attend a national jazz competition and festival in New York this spring.

Beloit Memorial, Middleton and Sun Prairie high schools' jazz bands will head to the 24th annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival at the Lincoln Center.

“That is pretty crazy,” Sun Prairie band director Steve Sveum said. “Three from the 608 area code. I don’t think that’s happened before."

At Sun Prairie's annual Essentially Ellington jazz fest Saturday, bands from across the region heard pointers from professional Jazz at Lincoln Center clinicians.

Sun Prairie's jazz band took note as they get ready for the national competition in May.

"It's a great, life-changing experience,” Sveum said. "They refer to it as the Super Bowl of jazz competitions. It really is."

His students don’t call him coach, but Sveum leads the way.

"There's a lot of growth, and you never know where that's going to take you, and that's the fun part about this,” he said.

One clinician referred to senior saxophonist Megan Rault as the Tom Brady of the team during practice.

"I don't really know football. I'm practicing a lot of the time, though,” Rault said. "But I feel like jazz band is more of a collaboration between everybody."

Each plays their own part to create something bigger.

"It's such an incredible feeling to feel. Everybody else is on the same page, beat, groove,” Rault said. “They can feel it, you can feel it. It's a good feeling."

"These kids are working hard, and they're swinging,” said Steve Renko, assistant of student and family programs at the Jazz at Lincoln Center. “You hear how quickly they listen and sort of engage with the material they're given and how quickly they can change and become better, like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

Sun Prairie’s jazz band has made it this far. Now, they're building up to May's competition, in which the three top-placing bands perform alongside the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and jazz legend Wynton Marsalis.

"That means you're the best jazz band in the country,” Rault said. “That would be crazy to think about."

In Rault’s eyes, the opportunity is enough.

"I think if we do the best we can do, I don't care the place we get,” she said.

Sveum said he and the band directors from Beloit and Middleton are planning to hold a concert locally sometime before the national Essentially Ellington festival takes place.