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Column: San Diego youth shine in national music spotlight

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 6/19/2021 Diane Bell

Five San Diego students shared the June 2021 cover of the annual student issue of the music industry's Downbeat magazine. They're members of New Soil Ensemble, named by Downbeat judges as the top high school small jazz combo in the nation.

What's more, this is the second consecutive year the ensemble, which includes three of the previous year's members, won the magazine's top ensemble honor. The combo is part of Gilbert Castellanos' Young Lions Jazz Conservatory in San Diego.

The three repeat winners — tenor sax player Nick Caldwell, pianist Brenda Greggio and bass player John Murray — are joined in 2021 by drummer Elijah Marrewa and trumpeter Benjamin Delgado.

"It's a pretty big deal," says Castellanos, who began his nonprofit music conservatory here five years ago. The judging was blind. His student group wasn't identified on the recording submitted to the professors from prestigious U.S. music schools who served as judges.

"I have a very young group," notes Castellanos. "Many have been with me since they were 10 and 11 years old. I've had the opportunity to watch them blossom. ... They're all playing professionally."

In a different competition, Caldwell and Murray were two of 20 students in the United States chosen to play in the Monterey Jazz Festival's Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. Greggio was selected to be in the highly regarded festival's Next Generation Women in Jazz four-person combo, created in 2019 to feature the most talented female high school jazz players.

All three musicians attend San Diego's School of Creative & Performing Arts.

The school has a successful track record. For instance, Murray won top national honors two years ago at the "Essentially Ellington" competition led by Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center in New York City.

"John won outstanding soloist for the entire jazz festival when he was in ninth grade," notes John Reynolds, former music director at the arts school. He says it was both the first time the honor was earned by a freshman and the first time by a bassist. "Wynton Marsalis was totally blown away by John, as were the rest of the judges," Reynolds says.

In addition to the jazz artists, Stacy Widyono, 16, a violinist attending Mt. Carmel High School, was selected for Carnegie Hall's 2021 National Youth Orchestra (NYO) program.

“I’m beyond excited to play at the national level," says the Rancho Peñasquitos student. "It’s been my dream for many years.” This was the first year that Widyono was old enough to compete for the NYO USA ensemble, the most advanced of its orchestras.

“I was surprised to be accepted into the program," says Widyono, who has been studying violin since the age of 10. "I didn’t expect to get in this year.”

Widyono, currently concert master of the Mainly Mozart Youth Orchestra, will serve a month-long summer residency in New York, taking master classes, performing and working with prominent guest conductors.

Five other students from across San Diego County are among 81 nationwide chosen to attend a five-day summer music camp run by the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles to groom talented students for various music careers.

They are Coronado singer Ava Lynn Thuresson; electronic music producer Carl Kukkonen, of Solana Beach; Samantha Blakeman, a Carlsbad bass player; and audio engineering students Ethan Garrie, of La Jolla, and Kylie Kennedy, of Jamul.

This will be Thuresson's second year at the camp, where students are mentored by members of popular bands. Like last year, the L.A. camp is taking place virtually again this summer.

"Even though it was on Zoom, I learned so much, and I met so many amazing people," Thuresson said in a video interview last year.

The Grammy Museum relies on camp support from funding programs backed by Bruno Mars, Chuck Lorre and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the Grammy-presenting Recording Academy.

Reynolds, who departed the School of Creative & Performing Arts in 2020 to run the Orange County School of the Arts, attributes the burgeoning crop of youthful performers to a number of factors.

"San Diego is a really unique place in the sense that students have access to really good jazz instruction, and they have the opportunity to perform and collaborate," he says.

Reynolds' students competed in the Jazz at Lincoln Center's prestigious "Essentially Ellington" competition in 2016 and again in 2019. Only 15 school groups across the nation are chosen as finalists each year. "We were one of those schools twice," marvels Reynolds.

"We're starting to get national recognition," Castellanos adds, referring to San Diego's up-and-coming musicians. He currently has 80 students in the conservatory program, where they enroll as young as age 10.

Last year, a 12-year-old conservatory alto sax player, Taichi Okumura, of Pacific Trails Middle School, won first place for woodwinds in the International Golden Classical Music contest. He was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall last November.

"I strongly believe our music community, in general, is responsible for giving kids opportunities to perform — venues, jazz clubs, jam sessions," says Castellanos. Until the pandemic interfered, his Young Lions students were playing at the Panama 66 restaurant in Balboa Park on Wednesday evenings. He expects those performances to be back in mid-July.

"We're seeing a Renaissance of young musicians," he says. "I've been here since 1995, and I've never seen it like this in my life."

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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