Newark Academy strives for top spot in national jazz competition

BY Raven Santana, Correspondent |

You may think they’re a professional jazz band, but they’re actually a group of talented teenagers from Newark Academy.

“You think you’re hearing a bunch old souls,” said band director Julius Tolentino.

Tolentino is the private school’s jazz band director. The jazz band is called Chameleon and it’s one of 15 finalists nationwide competing at Lincoln Center’s 24th Annual Essentially Ellington High School Band Competition and Festival. Last year, the band came in second, and this year they’re hoping to do better.

“The Essentially Ellington Festival every year is based in Duke Ellington’s music. Every year they put out six new charts of Duke Ellington’s music. Within those new six charts that the Jazz at Lincoln Center put out, we have to choose one of those new charts. And then we have several dozens of other charts to choose from to include in our set. We submit three songs,” said Tolentino.

Each finalist band was selected by a panel of adjudicators, including professional jazz drummer, composer and author Steve Fidyk. This week, Chameleon took part in a four-hour workshop he conducted to prepare for their competition.

“A lot of bands will play these transcriptions of these Duke Ellington’s compositions verbatim, and this band isn’t afraid to take that next step and put their own stamp on the music by personalizing the music. That’s what separates the great bands from the outstanding bands,” said Fidyk, an educational consultant at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The jazz band is one of few that also includes a vocalist, who Tolentino calls the band’s “secret weapon.”

“I guess I am kind of a secret weapon. There aren’t a lot, especially in high school groups, there’s aren’t a lot of vocalists that come out and sing. I may not be on a piano, I may not be on the drums, I still need to know those things in order to fully commit to the success of the band,” said senior vocalist Samantha Powell.

Band members say knowing the history of jazz is what adds an element of soul to their performances.

“It’s part of American history,” said drummer Teddy McGraw. “I think music, especially blues and jazz, is one of America’s greatest contributions.”

“Letting the music consume you and playing through your heart, kind of,” said Ben Chaddha, a sophomore trumpet player.

And the band will be playing their hearts out May 9 to 11 when they travel to the Big Apple to compete. Bands who win first, second and third place receive a trophy and a cash award to improve their jazz education program. It’s a program that students say is possible because of a culture that Tolentino has created for them to learn and thrive in.