Trumpeter Riley Mulherkar is no stranger to the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. The musician claimed top-spots in the competition three years in a row between 2008 and 2010, and this past May, Mulherkar returned to the stage to discuss music education with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis as part of the 2019 Essentially Ellington competition.
ALL ARTS caught up with the Essentially Ellington alum to talk about his early memories of the competition, how his participation has resonated throughout his career, his advice for aspiring jazz musicians and more.
Read the full interview below and then check out “ALL ARTS Celebrates Essentially Ellington,” a special three-part program that highlights the history and music of Duke Ellington and the next generation of jazz musicians who performed at this year’s competition.
What makes Essentially Ellington special among other high school jazz band competitions?
Essentially Ellington is unparalleled among other high school jazz band competitions in the way it celebrates and elevates the history of jazz, as well as the present-day community of student musicians dedicated to it. I’ve never seen another festival where so many lifelong friendships are made — I remember meeting folks like Patrick Bartley, Sammy Miller and Chloe Rowlands for the first time at Essentially Ellington, and these are people I consider my closest musical allies to this day. On top of that, the reverence and seriousness with which Ellington’s music is dealt with makes a lasting impression — and one that extends far beyond the stage.
Tell us about your first experience with Essentially Ellington.
I first played in Essentially Ellington in 2008 when I was a sophomore in high school. I remember being so nervous going up to solo with my plunger on “In a Mellow Tone” — knees shaking and palms sweating. But as soon as we finished, the room full of students from all over the country erupted in thunderous applause. That type of celebration of young musicians, by young musicians, motivated me to keep going and make a life out of my love of this music.
How did your participating in Essentially Ellington affect your career?
Participating in Essentially Ellington introduced me to New York City, introduced me to a number of musicians from across the country that would become lifelong friends and introduced me to a level of seriousness about Duke’s music that I still have ingrained in me to this day. It also introduced me to Jazz at Lincoln Center, which has been a home base for so many of my musical endeavors in my career.
How has Essentially Ellington evolved over the years? How has it stayed the same?
I keep hearing that the level of seriousness continues to rise and the bar keeps getting raised — I know a number of bands play without sheet music these days! In terms of how it’s stayed the same, I think the community-oriented celebration of students and their excellence remains the same. It is always a deeply rewarding and inspiring experience for students from all over the country.
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What is your favorite part of the Essentially Ellington experience and why?
My favorite part of the experience was getting to go head-to-head with Wynton [Marsalis] on Duke Ellington’s “The Shepherd” at Avery Fischer Hall. We battled back and forth, and while I didn’t really stand a chance, it was a total thrill. I’ll never forget it!
What advice do you have for aspiring jazz musicians?
My advice for aspiring jazz musicians is to play as much as possible and ask questions everywhere you go. Play by yourself in the practice room; play with your friends at school; sit in with mentors and teachers at night in the clubs — whenever you are playing, you will learn and grow as a musician. And whenever you find yourself surrounded by inspiring peers and mentors, never hesitate to ask questions. I’ve always found jazz musicians to be some of the most generous teachers in the world.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Top Image: Riley Mulherkar. Photo: Frank Stewart.