In the mid-1990s, Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra launched one of the more ambitious art education programs of recent memory. Throughout 1999, the Orchestra celebrated the centennial of Duke Ellington's birth by playing more than 100 shows around the world spotlighting the art of one of America's greatest composers. And since 1996, Jazz at Lincoln Center has sponsored the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival, wherein 15 high school jazz bands from around North America compete over three days, performing Ellington's elegantly complex music.
Director Bruce Broder's Chops follows Jacksonville, Fla.'s Douglas Anderson School of the Arts jazz band during its attempt to earn one of the 15 qualifying spots in the 2006 competition, and its hopes to be one of the finalists once it gets there. By focusing his camera on a few specific individuals entering Douglas from junior high--trombonist T.J., clarinetist Owen, and reeds player Darren--Broder's documentary sounds, and at times feels, like a jazz-based Hoop Dreams. It isn't--Chops doesn't venture as fearlessly into its students and their families lives, and its concerns and ambitions are much more modest. But Chops' themes become just as touching, for it succinctly captures young people in the process of becoming their adult selves.
In Chops, they do that through music, and the documentary's journey from the Douglas Anderson students competently playing Ellington tunes to feeling the music and expressing themselves through it is one of the more convincing arguments in Marsalis' at times contentious theory of jazz in general. Jazz as a living expression of democracy and a way of navigating the world is a philosophical ideal that has occasionally set Marsalis at odds with his fellow jazz musicians and critics. Whether or not you agree with Marsalis' music or his take on jazz history and its aesthetics, his work as a public jazz advocate is impressive, and you see how the LCJO has integrated education into its mission when Essentially Ellington clinician Ron Carter visits the band and, before their very eyes, teaches them how to swing: You gotta bring the stinky-wink. By the time the Douglas band hits the competition stage, even the students themselves are less concerned with how they fare than how they feel about playing with each other.
That jazz provides a sense of self, a sense of place in the world, is hard to step to when witnessed in action. And Marsalis lays it out very simply when T.J. asks him about the difference between soulfulness and church. "Soulfulness is the feeling where when I'm around you, I don't want to leave," Marsalis explains in his plain-spoken eloquence, before closing the deal with poignant economy. "Church sometimes has it. Sometimes it don't."