Jazz drummer Johnny Steele (16) stands a chance at a $10,000 check and a chance to study with Wynton Marsalis.
  • Jazz drummer Johnny Steele (16) stands a chance at a $10,000 check and a chance to study with Wynton Marsalis.
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Although 16-year-old percussionist Johnny Steele is a committed jazz head, he actually caught the drum bug when his dad took him to his first concert at the age of eight to see the Canadian prog-rock trio Rush. “As soon as I saw Neil Peart’s huge drumset,” Steele said, “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

A veteran of the School of Creative and Performing Arts in Paradise Hills, Steele was encouraged by band director John Reynolds to apply for the National Young Arts Foundation Awards, which he has won two years in a row.

Video:

Johnny Steele

...drums on "Blue Room" with the JLCO Summer Jazz Academy Milt Hilton Big Band

...drums on "Blue Room" with the JLCO Summer Jazz Academy Milt Hilton Big Band

“I decided to send in an audition tape, mainly because the award for winning was the opportunity to play and study with artists in either Miami, New York, or L.A. I really wanted to study with Wynton Marsalis...but those spots had already been filled by the time I completed the application. I’ll know soon if I get that chance next year.”

Steele was determined to demonstrate his progress to the judges of the competition.

“This year I tried to show them how much my playing has improved — I’ve become more authentic. Last year I was very stiff and I really stuck to the form...I decided to open up and relax more.” The drummer’s talent obviously made an impression — of the more than 600 Young Arts Awards this year, only five went to drummers. He stands to collect a $10,000 check if he wins the next phase of the competition in 2017.

Steele continues to sharpen his skills by studying with Los Angeles pro Jeff Hamilton and maintaining a daily practice routine that begins away from his primary instrument.

“I like to spend the first hour or two at the piano, running through chords and scales,” Steele said. “Then I move to the snare drum for classical etudes. Then I work on sight-reading — applying those things to the entire drum set. I also like to spend a lot of time working on odd meters and practicing world music on various percussion instruments.”

Steele has advanced enough to secure a regular gig in trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos’s band. “Being able to play with Gilbert on a regular basis has taught me a lot, not necessarily through words. We have a musical communication when we play together.”

The drummer has plans to graduate early next June, just after his 17th birthday, and has been busy checking out music schools. “I hope to be attending the Frost School at the University of Miami. But I also have good relations with the faculty at Juilliard and USC. So those are my top choices.”

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