AMONG THE two dozen or so definitions for the word "cool" in the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, the slang usage for "fine" and "excellent" best apply to student Mike Talbert's description of the professional jazz musicians who visited Arundel High School a few weeks ago.
"They were pretty cool," Talbert said. "They taught us so many things in just a short time. They blew us away."
Talbert, a junior and alto saxophonist, is one of about 18 members of Arundel High School Jazz Band heading to New York City this month - all no doubt hoping to be cool when they take the stage as finalists in this year's Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival, sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center.
More than 2,000 high school jazz bands around the country were invited to participate in the competition, and 163 of them submitted recordings of their renditions of three Duke Ellington songs. Arundel was one of 15 groups chosen to take part in the festival at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall from May 17 to 19.
The jazz band has been refining its work since it received the Ellington scores in November. Members practiced during class every day, then again after school and on Saturdays. In early February, the band's recording was submitted to the judge, and March 1, the band was named a finalist.
Early last month, two professional musicians associated with the Lincoln Center program -trumpeter Terrell Stafford and drummer Carl Allen - visited the Gambrills school to present a jazz clinic, sharing their enthusiasm for the music and presenting techniques for improvement.
Talbert, who has been playing in school bands since fifth grade, said he was surprised - and proud - the band was named a finalist after all its hard work.
Phillip Butts, who has taught instrumental music at Arundel for 31 years, is also proud of the band's success. This is the third year Arundel has taken part in the Ellington competition and its first trip to the finals. He said each year's experience taught the students more about what is expected from professional musicians
This year's group determined that the competition judges were looking for absolute perfection, and that was what they aimed for.
Many people think of jazz as free-flowing, without structure. Butts, however, said professional jazz music demands highly skilled performers. The Arundel group's members were trained in classical music before being allowed to join the jazz band. Polished performances of jazz improvisation are built on hundreds and hundreds of hours of practice.
The rewards for all that practice start tomorrow night, when the jazz group begins its traditional spring band trip, traveling to Atlanta for the Fiestaval Music Competition.
Then comes New York where, for three days, they take part in workshops, rehearsals with members of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and perform before the judges - a panel of professional musicians, including Wynton Marsalis, Carmen Lundy and Lalo Schifrin.
At the final performance, the top three bands will perform alone and with Marsalis as trumpet soloist.
The prize for first place is $6,000, which would find welcome use by the school's music program. But win or not, the students feel they will have received a more important prize - the experience of the competition and knowing they have been judged among the best in the country.
Talbert said band members have seen improvement in their work by taking advantage of ideas presented by their professional mentors last month. Now, they look forward to New York, to meeting and playing with the best of professional jazz musicians, performing in Lincoln Center and enjoying the experience of a premier national competition.
There is a little problem, however: Many of the band members are seniors. And the final night of competition, May 19, is also the night of Arundel's senior prom.
Butts talked with the seniors about the conflict months ago and most reached the same decision as senior Benjamin Britton, alto saxophonist and clarinet, - the Ellington event was more important.
So Butts has arranged an evening out in New York for the seniors, some of whom, like Britton, have invited their dates as honorary band members.
They will not play music with the group, of course, but will be able to attend the workshops and take part in the senior evening including dinner and a jazz club visit.