A block down from the famed Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, embedded in the sidewalks of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, are glimmering golden stars that honor entertainment ' s most enduring stars. On Thursday night, Feb. 10, it seemed fitting that if you followed the stars down the block into the Knitting Factory nightclub, you'd find the promise of what names might appear on these fabled sidewalks in the coming years.
The impending rainstorm outside did not damped the spirits of the 29 high-school students getting ready to take to the stage, settling into yet another public performance this week in front of jazz fans, parents and educators. All were chosen as members of this year's Gibson/Baldwin GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles, a unique "hands-on" educational experience provided by The Recording Academy-affiliated GRAMMY Foundation.
The Jazz Ensembles, which feature students from 13 states and two Canadian provinces, includes the GRAMMY Jazz Band, the GRAMMY Jazz Choir, and the GRAMMY Jazz Combo. All three groups are in the midst of a busy week, performing at some of the most popular jazz joints in Los Angeles, as well as the GRAMMY pre-telecast ceremonies and the post-telecast gala, as well as such high-profile opportunities as an appearance on " Late Night With David Letterman. " They will also be the envy of all their friends when they attend the televised GRAMMY Awards show as special guests of The Recording Academy.
As the Jazz Choir stood under the stage spotlights, GRAMMY Foundation Senior Director of Education Programs David Sears smiled broadly and told the audience it was comforting to have so many of the students' parents in the house, as they were always "more forgiving" of the occasional bad note and misplaced chord. But soon it would be clear that he and the parents had very little to worry about.
The Choir, under the direction of USC Thornton School of Music's Dr. Ron McCurdy, coolly tackled "What Kind Of Fool Am I," replete with silky scats by 16-year-old Katie Thiroux of the Hamilton High School Academy of Music in suburban Los Angeles. The eight voices blended seamlessly on a rendition of "Move" (from Birth Of The Cool, no less), and "Nothing You Can Do About It," a David Foster composition.
The slick three-piece Jazz Combo produced time-honored jazz facial expressions of introspection and determination, revealing these young players get as lost in the groove of their music as their pro counterparts. Bass player William Norris of Seminole High School in Seminole, Fla., and piano man Andrew Carroll of Manlius Pebble Hill School in upstate New York, exuded a stage presence as calm and practiced as veteran players three times their age.
And then the small Knitting Factory stage filled with the 17 young members of the Jazz Band. Looking elegantly professional in their suits and ties, they ripped it up on the classics "Love For Sale," "Manteca," and "Ecaroh" under the animated direction of the Manhattan School of Music's Justin DiCioccio, before being joined onstage by longtime GRAMMY Foundation mentor and current Academy Trustee Dave Koz.
The Band shifted from classics to more contemporary fare with ease when Koz took the lead on "Honey-dipped," from his new GRAMMY-nominated album Saxophonic.
"How old are you?" Koz asked drummer Stephen Renko, who hails from St. Ignatius High School in Euclid, Ohio. "Fifteen," he said quietly as he peered out from behind his kit.
"Which means he was born in 1990. That's kinda scary for me," Koz said, laughing and rolling his eyes in amazement at the Ensembles' collective talent. "â€¦When I was their age, my parents made me stuff a sock in the bell of my horn."
Koz said that he'd been watching TV one night last week, when he saw the Jazz Combo perform on the "Letterman." "It freaked me out," he joked. "I've been practicing 12 hours a day. I'm not sure if I'm ready to play with these guys."
Koz then coaxed Jon Secada, who'd been sitting in the audience, to come up and perform with him and the band. Before Secada launched into "Body & Soul," he told the audience that he grew up in an urban Latino neighborhood, and was a "product of the public school system." He stressed the importance of education, and said that getting to work with kids was one of his favorite parts of the GRAMMY experience.
On Friday, the Ensembles will be ensconced in the legendary Capitol Records recording studios at Hollywood and Vine, busy laying down tracks with the help of GRAMMY-nominated engineer Manny Marroquin, who happens to be a former music student of the Foundation's David Sears. And on Saturday, they'll perform with special guest Eric Marienthal on the Endless Dreams yacht as part of radio station 94.7 The Wave's jazz cruise around the Long Beach harbor.
Fearlessness and talent aside â€” and there was a lot of it in the room on this night - they're still kids in all the usual ways. After the Knitting Factory performance, the jackets quickly came off and the baseball caps and cell phones went on. Fourteen-year-old Corey Fonville, a freshman at the Governor's School for the Arts in Virginia Beach, Va., and the Combo's drummer, was serious about his music of choice. "I listen to jazz," he declared. "That's my thing." But Fonville admitted to being fond of hip-hop, and still also hoped to "meet a lot of movie stars," while in town on his whirlwind tour. A good number of other students confessed to pulling for hip-hop superstar Kanye West to bring home a stack of GRAMMY statuettes on Sunday night.
In addition to the excitement of this week, the Foundation is committed to helping the students cultivate their future. In being chosen for the GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles, the students are now eligible for college scholarships through a program established by program partners Berklee College of Music, USC's Thornton School of Music, the New School University, and the Manhattan School of Music.
The Gibson/Baldwin Jazz Ensembles are one of several educational programs created by the GRAMMY Foundation to mentor students and provide them with opportunities to meet and perform with their musical peers from across the country, and expose them to industry professionals who can offer both technical instruction and sage professional advice. For more information on the Foundation's programs, click here.