Carnegie Hall’s Inaugural Youth Jazz Orchestra Directed by Trumpeter Sean Jones Debuts at Stern Auditorium
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor, July 18, 2018
Carnegie Hall debuts its National Youth Orchestra Jazz—22 members between the ages of 16-19 from 16 states—on July 27 at Stern Auditorium. What promises to be a rousing concert of teenage jazz spirit will be directed by renowned trumpeter Sean Jones and will feature five-time Grammy-winning guest vocalist Dianne Reeves and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon. The show will make a perfect fit in the revered house’s embrace of jazz. For NYO Jazz, the legacy will meld with the contemporary.
Once upon a time, jazz was sequestered into tiny clubs all over the country, most famously in New York. But gradually the music’s importance and commercial viability took hold and encouraged Carnegie Hall, the esteemed foundation of classical music in New York, to present some of the most celebrated jazz music of all time. The venue spotlighted Miles Davis and Gil Evans playing together, as well as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker ushering in bebop plus the historic meeting of Thelonious Monk collaborating with John Coltrane. Dave Brubeck played there as did Glenn Miller. Vocalists Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and in more recent times Diana Krall held forth. In just the past couple of years, arresting pianism was highlighted with Keith Jarrett playing solo, and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea journeying along the duo route.
One of the most famous live recordings there took place in 1938 by Benny Goodman and his swinging orchestra—the first time a jazz big band played at Carnegie. One writer pronounced the event “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of ‘respectable’ music.” Unreleased until 1950, The Famous Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert became an immediate historical hit, selling well over a million copies. It’s significant that Carnegie Hall’s NYO Jazz is beginning its life as a big band in the shadow of Goodman and co.
NYO Jazz is the third Carnegie Hall-sponsored summer ensemble, emerging from its two successful classical music programs: National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America (NYO-USA, begun in 2013, and including 106 members) and NYO2 (formed in 2016 with 80 members). “We have a good set of experiences that have been super successful in their world tours,” says Doug Beck, the director of the Artistic Training Program at Carnegie Hall. “We decided to expanded our youth programs to include jazz given the jazz history here and that it’s our native art form.”
Funded by Carnegie Hall and its donors, NYO Jazz has been developed by an ambitious plan of reaching out to young people who share a passion for jazz. The word of the competition for the 22 seats went out through a series of scholarship programs, high school programs and similar all-star youth groups like Jazz at Lincoln Center’s high school band competition Essentially Ellington and Monterey’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. More than 275 young musicians from all over the country auditioned technologically with videos of their playing and a video essay. It’s a three-to-four-month, highly competitive process of the Carnegie staff reviewing the applications and then making the final decision.
“It’s become an exciting process,” says Beck. “And it’s full of discoveries for us, like this young man from Omaha, Nebraska who plays tenor sax. He was probably a big fish in a small pond there, so it’s super exciting that he’s getting the chance to come into the jazz world here.”
A veteran trumpeter with eight albums on Mack Avenue Records to his credit and a former member of the innovative SFJAZZ Collective, Jones says he’s pleased that Carnegie Hall is making the commitment to NYO Jazz. “It’s got such a history with jazz, so they’ve been speaking to the importance of jazz from early on,” he says. “It’s great that its donors are supporting this so that the students don’t have to pay for the experience. It’s a unique group of artists from everywhere in the country. And it’s a band of diversity of races, religions, sexual orientation. The panels of adjudicators listened closely to the music and chose the best.”
In preparation for the first meeting of the band, Jones will be assembling the group for a two-week residency from July 15-26 at Purchase College, the State University of New York located in Westchester County, north of the city. The band members will get to know each other, and then dive into what Jones calls “an intense experience locking into the music. They’ll be working in the morning, at noon and then into the night.”
The repertoire will have a variety of jazz stripes as well as contemporary hip-hop and R & B music that jazz has influenced. “It’s going to run the gamut of being an American band,” Jones says. “There are two things that we’re doing. First, it’s to celebrate the legacy of the big band with music by people like Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Thad Jones who played at Carnegie. Then we’re going to celebrate the diversity of jazz and its relevance today.”
In the mix is a new piece composed by MacArthur fellow saxophonist Miguel Zenón (a member of the SFJAZZ Collective who Jones knows well), and several new arrangements by John Clayton to give Reeves fresh material to work with. In addition, John Beasley of the Thelonious Monk tribute band MONK’estra has provided a couple of his arrangements of Monk tunes.
Jones is well-suited to take charge of the young big band, serving as artist-in-residence at San Francisco Performances and recently being appointed to the Richard and Elizabeth Case Chair in Jazz Studies at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Not only will Jones serve as the musical director of the Stern Auditorium evening, but then he takes the band of talented youngsters on the road, in NYO Jazz’s inaugural European tour from July 31-August 10. They’ll play concerts in England, the Netherlands, Scotland and Germany. (Photos, videos and livestreams will be posted daily on facebook.com/NYOJazz.)
Clive Gillinson, the executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, says that he hopes the young musicians will be empowered to further develop their artistry as they are mentored by such stars as Jones, Reeves and Gordon. Plus, he’s pleased and proud that they will not only inspire audiences around the world but also serve as ambassadors for their country.
This year’s NYO Jazz program is the beginning of what promises to be an ongoing summer jazz extravaganza for the young musicians and crowds (Beck is already thinking ahead to 2019 and hopes to take the band on an Asian tour then). But for now it promises to be a jump start for these talented musicians to break into the upper jazz ranks in the near future.
For more information on the NYO Jazz concert on July 27 and to purchase tickets click here.
Cover: Sean Jones; photo: Chris Lee.