Students hold their own with jazz saxman Kirk Whalum
"If you close your eyes and just listen," said the mother of one of the student musicians onstage, "… you couldn't tell that they were kids." And she was right. The 29 vocalists and musicians — some not even old enough to drive — stood calmly onstage in front of a full house, singing, scatting, and belting out several sets of cool and hot jazz grooves. They exuded both the fearlessness of youth and the confidence that comes with being blessed with an exceptional level of musical talent.
The young musicians that filled two stages at Spaghettini Grill and Jazz Club on Sunday in Seal Beach, Calif., are members of the 2006 Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles. They were the featured artists at the restaurant's popular Sunday morning jazz brunch, presented each week in partnership with Los Angeles' 94.7 The Wave smooth jazz radio station. The standing-room-only crowd was comprised of local jazz fans, as well as proud and anxious parents of Ensembles members.
The Ensembles' special guest was jazz saxman Kirk Whalum, who not only performed with the students but served as a patient and attentive mentor. Despite having only a few days of rehearsal, the students' voices and instruments blended seamlessly, no matter whether they were tackling Grover Washington Jr.'s "Winelight" or "For The Cool In You," a track from Whalum's new contemporary CD Kirk Whalum Performs The Babyface Songbook .
Vocalist Kevin Whalum, Kirk's younger brother, joined the Ensembles onstage for a soulful array of jazz and gospel numbers. Solo performances by the choir members, who each ably scatted opposite Whalum's silky sax lines, were met with enthusiastic applause.
The 18-piece Big Band commanded a full third of one of the restaurant's rooms, and repeatedly wowed the audience with their smart, brassy selections and sizzling solo turns.
The Combo — pianist Yuma Song, bassist Billy Norris and drummer Cory Cox — kept things moving all afternoon on a different stage. In between sets, the essence of the Foundation's core goal of mentorship was truly exemplified as the trio huddled around Whalum, and listened raptly to his direction and thoughts.
"As a father and a grandfather, I can understand how amazing it is to see these kids playing up here," Whalum said from the stage, surrounded by his young protégés. "But it's just as impressive to see them pursuing something with excellence."
The Ensembles are a collective of 29 students from 17 states across the country who applied and auditioned for a coveted slot in one of three groups: the Choir, the Jazz Combo, or the Big Band.
During their whirlwind week in Los Angeles, the students will have the opportunity to perform, record and, perhaps most importantly, interact with music industry professionals. Two of the Ensembles' most valued mentors — the Manhattan School of Music's Justin DiCioccio and Dr. Ron McCurdy of the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music — return again to guide the students through a rigorous week of rehearsals and performances.
The Ensembles appeared at the GRAMMY Salute To Jazz event on Friday at the Music Box @ Fonda, and the GRAMMY Foundation's Music on Film Preservation event on Saturday at the historic Wilshire Ebell theater. They will also get to jam in the intimate confines of The Vic theater Monday. And at the GRAMMY Awards telecast on Wednesday, the Ensembles will entertain GRAMMY guests at the show's pre-telecast ceremonies and post-telecast after-party.
The students will also take time out to record at the famed Capitol Recording Studios in the heart of Hollywood. They will be in the capable hands of GRAMMY-nominated engineer Manny Marroquin, a former student of David Sears, the GRAMMY Foundation's Senior Director of Education Programs (and the man who will keep 29 teenagers focused, on time, and on the tour bus all week).
The Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles is one of several "hands-on" educational programs created by the GRAMMY Foundation. The weeklong experience gives the students more than just the chance to show off their musical chops. It offers them the opportunity to travel, meet like-minded peers, and exchange ideas. It also affords them the opportunity to interact with seasoned music industry veterans and professional artists, and have their eyes opened to career opportunities and challenges.
In between sets, four of the girls from the Choir admitted that although exploring a career in the spotlight was a major goal for them, they were in agreement that college was still a priority. Morgan Mallory, a soprano from Lincoln-Way East High School in Frankfurt, Ill., said that one of the things she'd realized this week was the importance of learning the business and technical side of music. And despite all the instructors and artists she'd met during the week, the best advice she'd been given was from her father. "He said 'pressure is not being prepared,'" she explained calmly, after having just gotten off stage with Whalum.
As part of the Ensembles, the students are eligible for more than $2 million in college scholarships through Foundation partnerships with Berklee College of Music, USC's Thornton School of Music, New School University and Manhattan School of Music.