The Tucson Jazz Institute's Ellington Band, which took top honors at New York's Lincoln Center May 12, 2013.

The Tucson Jazz Institute’s Ellington Big Band took first place at the 18th Annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival in New York City on Sunday.

The Tucson band was one of 15 bands selected nationally by Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“It’s a life-changing event,” said Doug Tidaback, the band’s director. “You couldn’t ask for more. These are the finest musicians in the world, and they are taking an interest in our students.”

Some members of the band have practiced with the Tucson Jazz Institute since the third grade, Tidaback said. They practice twice a week and perform in the community to prepare for the competition.

“A lot of kids have been with us up to six or seven years now” Tidaback said. “They start preparing for this way back then.”

Several members of the band also won individual honors from the competition.

“One of our students, Robbie Lee, they created an award for him, 'outstanding tripler',” Tidaback said. “He played piano, he played tenor saxophone, and he sang like Louis Armstrong.”

The Tucson teen musicians competed against bands affiliated with high schools and community groups like themselves. Second place went to the Jazz House Kids, a group from Montclair, N.J., Roosevelt High School in Seattle took third place.

The Tucson Jazz Institute is the only Arizona organization to send a band to the competition in the almost two decades since it started, Tidaback said. The institute also competed in 2010 and 2012 and took top honors in the community division.

“That’s a cool thing to represent Arizona in such a positive way,” Tidaback said. “Around Lincoln Center, mention Tucson and they think jazz. That’s a pretty cool thing. They don’t think some of the other things that have happened in Tucson."

Other awards that the Tucson band won in New York included outstanding trombone section; outstanding trumpet section; alto saxophone outstanding soloist, Alan Acosta; outstanding tripler, Robbie Lee, on piano, vocal and saxophone; trombone outstanding soloist Sam Chess; trumpet outstanding soloist, Alex Melnychuk.

Mariana Dale is a University of Arizona intern at Arizona Public Media.