Director Bruce Broder had never heard of the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Program when he first began filming his son, Owen, and two other members of a middle school jazz band. Essentially Ellington was created in 1996 by Jazz at Lincoln Center to support high schools and to make the glorious music of Duke Ellington available to them.
As part of the program, member high schools from the United States, Canada, and American schools abroad are invited to submit a recording to the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival. Each year, from all the entries received, only 15 bands are chosen to perform and compete at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Like many documentarians, Broder had no idea where his story would eventually lead. Chops was initially conceived as a project that would observe Owen and his friends as they negotiate adolescense, their love of jazz, and the transition from middle to high school. However, in their second year at the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, Florida, the boys and their fellow band members decided they wanted to take a shot at the Essentially Ellington competition. What started out as a dad with a single camera evolved into a more sophisticated production.
Pervaded by a feeling of jubilance from beginning to end, Chops follows young jazz disciples from Jacksonville to New York, and offers up some compelling interview footage with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Artistic Director, Wynton Marsalis.
Aside from Owen Broder, the other boys we first meet in this documentary are T.J. Norris, and Darren Escar. At Douglas Anderson, we are also introduced to Jamison Ross, and Jeron “Ricio” Fruge. Right away these boys are likable. And though they are definitely underdogs in terms of the upcoming competition, one gets the sense that in life, these kids are already victors. Their passion for jazz influences their speech, their behavior, their style, and their general outlook. As they head for Essentially Ellington, it ‘s impossible not to root for them.
To bring the idea of competition to the fore, Chops takes a brief detour to Seattle, a city known for its jazz culture, and home to Roosevelt High School and Garfield High School. Roosevelt just happens to be featured in another documentary about competition, The Heart of the Game (2005). More importantly, though, almost every year since 1999, Roosevelt and Garfield have made it to the Essentially Ellington finals. Both schools have placed first on three occasions, and more often than not, one or the other, has placed in the top three. Needless to say, Roosevelt and Garfield are among the finalists that Douglas Anderson is up against in the 2006 Essentially Ellington competition.
Unlike other documentaries about student competition, such as Spellbound (2002), which follows students to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, or Heart of the Game, about a girls basketball team, Chops does not delve into any of the students’ personal or family lives. The primary concern of Chops is the kids’ relationship to the music.Centered, as it is, on the music of Ellington, Chops demonstrates a perfect coexistence between the spirit of collaboration inherent in The Heart of the Game and the essence of individualism found in Spellbound.
After a year of playing together, the band finally starts to gel. Once the band members learn that they have been accepted to Essentially Ellington, to ready themselves to play ensemble music at its highest level, they must unite even more. That unity, however, does not come at the expense of individuality. Through the music, and their instruments, the boys who are the subject of this documentary are learning how to express themselves uniquely. This discovery and declaration of the self is a big part of what jazz is all about. Not surprisingly then, in the Essentially Ellington competition, judges place more emphasis on bands with good soloists.
The other element upon which the bands will be judged this year is “soulfulness”. To assist Douglas Anderson with this aspect of their performance, Ron Carter, a Jazz at Lincoln Center Clinician, pays a visit to the band. Humorous, knowledgeable, and entertaining, Carter gives the students a much-needed “soul injection”.
When the band finally makes it to New York, they have an opportunity to participate in workshops and pose questions to Marsalis. And, ultimately, when it’s time to go on, they give the performance of their young lives. But you’ll have to watch the video to find out if their effort was enough to win, or even place.
With its exuberance of youth, the mesmerizing presence of Marsalis, and the music of Ellington for a soundtrack, Chops exudes “soulfulness”. Chops will certainly appeal to lovers of jazz, and anyone who appreciates the significance of art and culture.