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May 2007


By Special Correspondent Leslie Hoban Blake



Directed by Bruce Broder



Talk about the little engine that could! According to director Bruce Broder, his film “Chops” started out as a little documentary about his son Owen’s Florida high school jazz class. So how did it wind up premiering at this year's Tribeca Film Festival? Enter Wynton Marsalis. As part of his mission to honor and keep the music of Duke Ellinton alive, the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center also heads up the Annual Essentially Ellington Festival.

When Owen Broder’s class becomes one of the 1,000 yearly entries in the 11th Annual competition, his dad Bruce’s film suddenly takes on a purpose and relevance never suspected much less intended. The film follows the Douglas Anderson Arts School jazz class from its inception - just a group of musically talented boys and girls who hadn’t played together as a 'big band' before (although Owen and three of his friends were also part of a semi-professional combo called the Lucky 7) through their coming together as a band.

The introduction of the Ellington charts – each class must submit a cd recording of three Ellington tunes – galvanizes them, under the strict direction of class jazz band leader, Ace Martin, a gruff teddy bear of a man who keeps control as well as time. Only 15 bands a year are chosen nationally to come to New York at their own expense to participate and the top three bands win trophies as well as individual and monetary awards.

Broder’s film also visits the schools of several of the other competing bands including two of Seattle’s perennial Ellington finalists – Garfield and Roosevelt High Schools. The styles of the band leaders couldn’t be more different. The past winners are both cooler and looser than Martin and sure enough, when the 15 finalists are announced the two Seattle schools are among them again. But this time so is newcomer Anderson.

One of the film’s many highlights is Ellington consultant and clinician, the legendary bassist Ron Carter (check him out in his hey-day with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock on You Tube) who comes to help the kids 'feel the jazz.' He’s a hoot as he helps them get loose. At the event in New York, Marsalis talks to all the finalists who fill Rose Hall and the film shows his very real love of jazz and kids. He actually spots Owen’s perfect goatee in the crowd and calls him to the stage, unaware that his dad is shooting the documentary.

Broder catches the rising excitement - think “Fame” meets “Rocky” by way of the Duke of Ellington – as well as some great footage of the late Ed Bradley, a longtime supporter of Essentially Ellington. Decked out in their black suits and bright, shiny ties, Anderson competes like a bunch of pros – do they make it to the top three? Do they win? Do you think I’m going to tell you? But if you're interested in the outcome of this year's event, the finals take place in New York on Sunday, May 6th at Avery Fisher Hall and yes, both Seattle schools will be there again.