Teenaged saxophonists Tiger Diep (left) and Alvin Paige (center) are two of the young jazz musicians in the Young Lions program.
Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos decided to turn his weekly Young Lions performance series at Panama 66 in Balboa Park into a fully functional after-school music program called the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory last fall. He started with a roster of 30 students. “I think the word is out that we’re doing something special,” says Castellanos. “Because we’ve doubled our enrollment...we may have more than a hundred students next semester.”
Between classes on a Sunday afternoon at Liberty Station, Castellanos says, “This is my bread and water, my heart and soul. I can’t wait to get here, and I’m always thinking about ways to challenge these young adults.”
Performance opportunities are the raison d’être of the Young Lions concept. Learning on the job. In addition to the weekly shows at Panama 66, some students play an opening set in the lobby prior to each Jazz at the Jacobs concert that Castellanos curates at Symphony Hall.
“One of our ensembles was selected to compete in the Next Generation Jazz Festival in March,” said the trumpeter. “Only six schools in the country got that distinction.”
Here are some of the conservatory’s most accomplished players.
“Nick is probably the best 12-year-old saxophonist I’ve ever heard,” Castellanos says.
Caldwell attends Grant K-8 in Mission Hills and has been studying with Castellanos and bebop icon Charles McPherson for several years. “My mom met Gilbert at a gig he was playing at 98 Bottles. He told her about the Young Lions, which he probably does every gig,” says Caldwell, laughing at the memory. “I went to check it out, and I loved it. Right away, I started improving. We learn the songs real quick, and then he drills us over and over until we get them right.”
Like most of his peers, Caldwell sees music school and work outside San Diego in his post-high school future.
“Ultimately, I want to move to New York and become a top player like Chris Potter.”
“Being a Young Lion is like being part of a really cool family,” says singer Zion Dyson, 16. Behind her
plays 13-year-old bassist John Murray. “He’s already playing at a professional level,” Gilbert Castellanos says.
Vocalist Zion Dyson, age 16, attends the Bishop’s School in La Jolla. “I’ve been studying with Gilbert for three years now,” she said. “I’m planning on going to college for music. I might end up doing music as a career or working as a music educator — I’m interested in both fields.”
I asked Dyson what compels her to spend so much of her time doing this particular activity.
“Because we’re all really into jazz. Being a Young Lion is like being part of a really cool family.”
Whom does she admire?
“I love Ella Fitzgerald... also Chet Baker. I love his sound and I gravitate to that sound.”
Castellanos says, “what makes him stand out is the gorgeous sound he gets from his horn.”
Fifteen-year-old saxophonist Paige goes to the School of Creative and Performing Arts in Paradise Hills under the guidance of Dr. John Reynolds. “I hope to be in college somewhere playing music soon. I believe that’s what I was meant to be doing.”
His inspirations? “I listen to a lot of John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon, but Daniel Jackson is my favorite.
Of Young Lions, Paige says, “I don’t think there’s another place in town where I’d be able to play gigs and perform as much as I do here.”
“Brenda came to us from the classical world, and she has developed at an amazing pace in the last few years,” Castellanos says. “I predict she’ll be the pianist for the number one ensemble next year.”
Thirteen-year-old Greggio makes the trip south every week from Poway, where she attends Black Mountain Middle School. “In five years, I hope to be at Juilliard,” says Greggio. “My goal is to play jazz in New York. I love Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Oscar Peterson. I didn’t know much about jazz when I got here and now it’s one of my favorite things to do.”
How much time does she devote to the instrument?
“I practice a minimum of two hours a day, but on the weekends, when I have time to really explore — it’s more like six. My goal is music. I don’t really have a backup plan.”
“Tiger is a newcomer to the conservatory, and I really admire his love and dedication to the music,” says Castellanos. “He’s got a real depth in his approach.”
Seventeen-year-old alto saxophonist Diep originally made quite the commute to participate in the San Diego jazz scene. “I moved here from Murrieta, which is about an hour north. I’ve transferred to the School of Creative and Performing Arts. I definitely came to pursue music.”
Word of mouth led Diep to the Young Lions. “I heard about the program while I was attending Jazz Camp at UCSD. Gilbert is a phenomenal educator, and I’m getting a lot from working with him. He has so much knowledge to offer.”
Diep has his sights set on attending Juilliard or Temple University.
“I’ve watched her development as a musician skyrocket over the last few years,” Castellanos said. “She is so mature. I don’t know what is in the water over there at the Murray household, [Carmen’s younger brother John, is a rapidly evolving bass player] but they should bottle it.”
Fifteen-year-old drummer Murray sees a clear benefit to Young Lion membership. “It helps me further my jazz education.” [She also attends the School of Creative and Performing Arts]. I get to work with one combo all semester, and I make a lot of friends. We’re all learning how to survive in the professional jazz environment. We’re learning some music theory and how to improvise.”
I asked her if she had a favorite drummer. “Not just one,” she answered. “I really like Tony Williams, Max Roach, and Jimmy Cobb.”
“I put him in a separate category,” Castellanos paused, reflecting on 13-year-old bassist Murray. “I honestly believe John is a child prodigy. In many ways, he’s already playing at a professional level. He’s so wise, musically speaking, and he sounds so natural and organic when he’s playing the bass.”
“It does take up a lot of my time,” says John Murray. “But I really love the program. Gilbert is by far the best teacher I’ve ever had, and he sets an amazing example.”
Does he have a backup plan, in case the jazz prodigy thing doesn’t work out?
“I really have my sights set on being a professional musician. But if that didn’t work out, I’m also interested in engineering, so that might be another possibility.”