is hard to believe it has been eight years since the bankruptcy of the
International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE). Frankly, the jazz community
has yet to recover from the loss of its annual conference. For the hundreds of
massively gifted high school jazz bands around the country, IAJE used to be a
golden opportunity to showcase their talents and maybe jam with the legends. In
the post-IAJE world, Jazz @ Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition
is now the marquis event for high school big bands. Under the direction of the
strict but charismatic Christopher Dorsey, the Dillard Center for the Arts has
twice won the competition, but not in 2013. The following year, Mr. Dorsey challenges
the band to do better, while giving them invaluable life lessons. Jim Virga
documents their 2014 season in Sweet
which screens during the 2016 Brooklyn Film Festival.
Dorsey had previously taught in predominantly African-American and white
schools, so he was well suited for a truly multi-racial, multi-ethnic campus
such as Dillard. For any artistically or musically inclined student in Broward
County, it is the place to be, in part because of the big band’s success. Mr.
Dorsey is not afraid to unleash his inner drill sergeant, but he also knows how
to build up his students’ confidence. He is a formative influence on many,
including his son.
amusingly, Mr. Dorsey’s son was initially afraid to reveal his plans to major
in engineering instead of music, but of course that was just fine with his
father. The scholarship probably did not hurt either. Yet, what really matters
to Mr. Dorsey is the application of the lessons learned on the bandstand: team
work, responsibility, self-expression. (In fact, the son’s desire to help jazz
musicians as a successful professional echoes those of the teen protagonist in
Nat Hentoff’s Jazz Country, which
remains maddeningly out-of-print).
young, enthusiastic jazz talent is wonderfully uplifting. Virga and his
co-producer-cinematographers Susan and Mike Stocker (who happen to be Dillard
parents) capture a full sense of the band’s spirit and dedication. They swing
mightily, especially by the time they get to the Essentially Ellington (jazz
cineastes might also remember the Ellingtonpalooza from Bruce Broder’s CHOPS). It is amazing how fresh Duke
still sounds, especially when hungry young players are attacking his charts.
Dillard boosters tastefully make their points
about the importance of music education without ever sounding strident or
interfering with the film’s flow. Of course, the kids are their best argument.
Many come from mean circumstances or chaotic home lives, but most of them will
continue onto college, many with scholarships. Although Sweet Dillard runs just short of an hour, Virga and editor-co-producer
Konstantia Kontaxis nicely balance student backstories with Mr. Dorsey’s
swingingly wise pedagogy. Highly recommended for jazz fans and general
audiences, Sweet Dillard screens
again tomorrow (6/6) at the Wythe Hotel, as part of this year’s Brooklyn Film
Labels: BFF '16, Documentary, Essentially Ellington