Just Keep Swinging

After not making it last year, Dillard High School’s award-winning jazz band prepares for high school jazz's biggest prize, New York's Essentially Ellington competition.

By: 

Emily Bloch

Published date: 

Apr. 1, 2017

Microphones line a small Dillard High School classroom and about 20 jazz band students sit on risers. They play “If You Could See Me Now,” the 1946 standard by Tadd Dameron made famous by Sarah Vaughan. Seventeen-year-old Brianna Garcon sings with the band, her five-foot frame perched over a mixing board atop a small amp. She says she’s inspired by Billie Holiday - “I’ve honestly listened to her Lady in Satin album probably a thousand times, and I cry every time I hear the song ‘Lady Sings the Blues’” - and it shows. Her singing slides over the room like honey.

The shelves of the room are lined with jazz literature, old photos and awards. Old concert flyers are taped across the walls. Band director Christopher Dorsey sits in front of the band, watching silently.

One trumpet player stutters slightly during a solo. When the song ends, Dorsey speaks to a silent room. “I have no patience for soloists,” he says. “One of the problems with high school jazz bands around the country is they go up to solo and play anything. There are rules and regulations with anything.”

There are certainly rules in Dorsey’s jazz band. A poster-board hangs on the wall behind his desk. “CLASSROOM RULES,” it says in bold Sharpie. “1. MR. DORSEY IS ALWAYS RIGHT. 2. IF MR. DORSEY IS EVER WRONG… REFER BACK TO #1. 3. BE RESPECTFUL! 4. BE RESPONSIBLE! 5. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS!”

The Dillard Jazz Band is working on a recording to submit in hopes of being chosen to compete at Essentially Ellington, a high school jazz competition in New York that is the country’s most prestigious. Since 2010, the band has been a perennial Essentially Ellington contender - one of just five bands to represent Florida in the last five years, and the only band from Broward to do so. In 2011 and 2012, the group won back-to-back first place honors. But last year, they didn’t make it in.

“The band I had last year was good,” Dorsey says. “Contests are subjective. So I can’t tell you if it’s going to be different, but I can tell you this, they can play their behinds off. They can play.”

This year, Dillard’s jazz band is facing off against around 100 other high school and community bands from North America. From there, a list is narrowed down to 30 and finally, the 15 that go to New York. At the end of the New York festival — which includes jam sessions, education clinics and performances — first, second, third and honorable mention titles are named. As they practice “If You Could See Me Now,” they don’t yet know if they’ve made it.

“Maybe last year we didn’t have enough of a wow, but we’re going to have it this year. I guarantee you,” Dorsey says. He leans back in his swivel chair. “Do I think we’ll make it this year, yeah I do. But if we don’t, it won’t end our year. I’ll tell you that. We’ll just keep right on swinging.”

Brianna Garcon credits Dorsey for helping her overcome feelings of anxiety and insecurity. “I’m the type of person that has to have everything perfect and he’s taught me not to be so hard on myself, but to also have that perfectionist inside,” the junior says. “I never had thick skin. Anything somebody said about me would hurt me and I’m learning to not let what other people say affect me.”

When she’s done singing her Sarah Vaughan tribute, Garcon puts her neck strap back on and hooks up her alto sax before taking a mean solo. She also plays French horn. By eighth grade, Garcon knew she wanted to pursue music. “I don’t want to be that kid who doesn't know their stuff,” she says. “It's a pride you have for yourself, and Dillard gives you that pride.”

Dillard Jazz alumnus and 2011 Dillard grad Patrick Bartley agrees. Bartley was the saxophone section leader his junior and senior year. Now the Manhattan School of Music graduate and Grammy-nominated musician leads numerous bands in New York and has performed with big names including Josh Groban, The Chainsmokers, Steve Miller, Wynton Marsalis and the Dave Matthews Band. Earlier this year, he was featured on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He still wears his Essentially Ellington championship ring.

“I wasn’t in sports in high school, it was all music," he says. "But it was important for me to have an experience that allowed me to learn what it means to be a team player. And that’s what this band definitely did.

“In terms of interacting with a band, a lot of guys didn’t know how to be proactive or voice their opinions,” he says. But Bartley did. “That’s what Mr. Dorsey instilled in me. It wasn’t just high school; it was real life.”

And that’s exactly what Dorsey, who has been teaching for 31 years in total and at Dillard since 2004, is aiming for — real life. “Honestly, I think that being a part of my program has helped students develop life skills more so than anything, that’s my main thing,” Dorsey says. “I want to help them maneuver through life because music is just one aspect of life.”

Garcon wants to follow in the footsteps of Bartley and so many other Dillard jazz alumni by pursuing higher education in the Big Apple.

“I want to go to New York and go to a conservatory," she says. "I can’t wait, I’m so set on college and I’m already thinking about it now.”

She’s already emailing professors at conservatories. “I want them to know my name before I get there.”

MILES LENNOX, a sophomore pianist, has been playing a written solo as long as the band’s been rehearsing. But now, he sheepishly asks if he can try his own. “Yeah,” Dorsey tells him. “Let’s see what you’ve got.” Lennox also wants to pursue a higher degree. And to start composing — “I have ideas.” He’s currently the group’s only pianist. “Playing with these guys, they’re the best in the country by far,” he says. “They’re musicians that love the music as much as I do and put time and effort into it.”

Since the band wasn’t invited last year, this would be his first Essentially Ellington. “I want to make it so bad but I also want to win it,” he says. “I know chances are slim, but I think we could do it.”

In February, Dorsey's phone rings. Later, the band members gather in their room, under the posters from past performances, the awards won by other students. Today, Dorsey has news. Word has come down from New York.

If Lennox thinks his bandmates can do it – if he thinks the Dillard Jazz Band can be the best in the country - there's just one way to find out. They have to make it back there. And on this day, Dorsey tells them that's what they've done. After a year away, the Dillard Jazz Band has been invited back to Essentially Ellington. They are the only South Florida school to get an invite and, along with a performing arts magnet school in Kissimmee, one of just two from the state. They will compete May 11 to 13 at the Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

There’s a good chance that, right at this moment, they’re practicing for those days. “I told my students that I’m very proud of them because of the hard work they put in to make it,” Dorsey says, “and we have even more work to do now.

“They are ready for the next challenge.”


Sweet Dillard

Dillard’s jazz program and its annual trip to the Lincoln Center for Essentially Ellington caught the attention of one member, saxophonist Ben Stocker’s, parents – who also happened to be photojournalists.

Mike and Susan Stocker were your “typical band parents” according to Susan, as son Ben entered his freshman year with Dillard Jazz. “Most of the parents helped out with fundraising; we volunteered by taking pictures,” Susan says. The Stockers photographed all of the band’s performances and road trips between 2010 through 2014. “We really got to know the students and Mr. Dorsey,” she says. “We always felt that we were witnessing something beautiful and inspiring.”

That’s when the pair’s long-time friend Jim Virga, a documentary film professor at the University of Miami, approached them about making a film about the band. He would direct and they would produce. “It didn’t take much convincing us to get onboard,” Susan says. “The chemistry in the band was remarkable. The love shined through the music.”

When the Stockers pitched Dorsey on the idea, “my initial thoughts were ‘Um, you want to do a documentary? What does that mean?’” Dorsey says. “I said, ‘Look, I can't change the way I am.’ And they said, ‘We don’t want you to.’ In Sweet Dillard they got me the way I am, period.”

Mike Stocker agrees. “From the first day I met Mr. Dorsey, I knew he would be one of those teachers that students never forget,” he says. “He has an oversized personality and a true joy for teaching. He is also a no B.S. kind of guy and lets students know when they’re doing something wrong, or if their effort is not up to par. His standards are very high and his students have to earn his respect.”

The film, which followed the band through part of the 2013-14 school year, premiered last March. It received rave reviews, including an Emmy award — the Stockers’ first. It has been rebroadcast periodically on WLRN.

“Every time I look at it I get a little emotional because as a band director, we know most of our students’ stories but we don't know all of them,” Dorsey says. “They say that the two most important days in your life are when you’re born and when you find out why you were born. So now, I feel like I know why I was born. I’m really here to be a teacher.”


Dillard Jazz Upcoming Fort Lauderdale Performances

April 6, 2017 – 7 p.m.
Bonnet House Concert Series
900 N Birch Rd

April 23, 2017 – 4 p.m.
Sweet Dillard Jazz
Dillard High School
Main Theater
2501 NW 11th St

For more information on Dillard Jazz and a full schedule of performances, visit the band’s Facebook page: ‘Dillard High School Jazz Ensemble’ or the school’s website: dillardhs.com/events.