Don’t let their ages fool you. One of Carnegie Hall’s three acclaimed, national youth ensembles, NYO Jazz, boasts a membership of accomplished musicians ages 16-19 from across the U.S.
The group, which recently wrapped up touring with a concert at the Kennedy Center, performs at a level of musicianship far beyond their years.
Under the leadership of artistic director, band leader and trumpeter Sean Jones, NYO Jazz, who recently released their first CD, “We’re Still Here,” counts as a big band group.
“You close your eyes and think they’re all 20 years older than they are,” said Jones, president of the Jazz Education Network and the Richard and Elizabeth Case chair in jazz studies at The John Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute in Baltimore.
The featured vocalist with NYO Jazz, Jazzmeia Horn, exudes a breadth of vocal talent deserving of all honors she has received so far in her young career. Horn, who’s won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, didn’t hesitate to let the Kennedy Center audience know that she and NYO Jazz remained perfectly in sync.
“The future is in good hands,” Horn said when thanking NYO Jazz during their final performance on this tour. “Probably, we will play together in the future.”
When a musician joins NYO Jazz, they know it won’t last forever. Tenor saxophonist Zachary Levin from Arlington, Va., who has been with NYO Jazz for a year, enters the University of Pennsylvania this month. He began playing the saxophone in the fourth grade learning several genres of music with private instruction.
“I liked the classical genre and then my teacher had me improvise with the blues,” said Levin, who graduated from Arlington’s Yorktown High School. “In seventh grade, my private teacher convinced me to join my middle school jazz band.”
In high school, Levin juggled schoolwork, performing with the Yorktown High School Big Band, playing with his own jazz band “Four on the Floor,” serving on the local school board’s Budget Advisory Council and served as a member of the school board’s Student Advisory Board.
“We look for leaders,” Jones said about students who come to NYO Jazz. “I think we need more folks who have the ability to communicate on a higher level – not just musically – but also to get up and speak in boardrooms and implement policy changes.”
Laura-Simone Martin, 17, plays acoustic and electric bass. From Lawrence Township, N.J., she started playing the bass in the fifth grade but had a leg up since her mother is a jazz vocalist. She led NYO Jazz in “Ida’s Crusade,” composed by CBS Late Show bassist Endea Owens. With a vital bass opening section from Martin that went into a New Orleans feel before taking the audience to church, the piece served as a soaring, layered piece of musical storytelling honoring journalist and advocate Ida B. Wells.
“Endea Owens composed a beautiful arrangement,” Martin said about the composition. “It’s the struggle of her journey of trying to tell the truth.”
When introducing NYO’s final selection, Jones became very emotional. He acknowledged the struggles of working virtually for two years, then the joy of performing with NYO Jazz as a big band in front of live audiences.
“The big band is the United States orchestral format,” Jones said. “The big band can play jazz, gospel, hip-hop, literally everything.”
See NYO Jazz in rehearsal at https://youtu.be/Hkq1RIwtbUM.