When Fifteen Become One

Chops Documentary


“Skittle doo-wop bop doo-wop!” Imagine twenty first graders scat singing in unison to Miles Davis’ iconic song “So What.” I was fortunate to join the phonetic improvisation that morning when I invited Carl Lindberg, a local jazz musician, to deliver a crash course in jazz history. The captivated joy on the children’s faces forever-infused jazz into my pedagogy. Behind an upright bass, surrounded by six- and seven-year-olds, Carl began the history lesson with “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington.

Wynton Marsalis is the artistic director of the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition, which is the focus of director Bruce Broder’s documentary film, Chops. Throughout the film, Marsalis highlights the role soulful cooperation plays among the young musicians. In his own words, “Soulfulness is the feeling that when I’m around you, I don’t want to leave… This is about learning the beautiful music of Duke Ellington.” The festival is held annually in New York City, and receives over 1,000 applications from the United States, Canada, and American schools abroad. For the 15 high school jazz bands that make the cut, the experience is pivotal.

Darren, one of the film’s most talented high school soloists, began playing the saxophone at age 6 when he tagged along with his older brother to a middle school summer band camp. According to Darren, jazz lets you “tell stories about how you feel at that moment.” One of the strongest points Chopsmakes is how music nurtures social-emotional learning. When a friend recommended Chops, I expected competition to be the focal point. Instead, it gave me goose bumps.

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