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Trained on Coltrane: the significant growth of Young Lions Jazz Conservatory’s Nick Caldwell

“Most of my early compositions were amalgamations of different Coltrane tunes”

Nick Caldwell: from gigging with Greggio to jamming at Juilliard?
Nick Caldwell: from gigging with Greggio to jamming at Juilliard?

“I’ve been playing sax for seven and half years,” says Nick Caldwell, a 17-year-old high school senior who attends the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts in Paradise Hills, and who is also a charter pupil of Gilbert Castellanos’ Young Lions Jazz Conservatory on the weekends. He’s talking to me over the phone from NYC, where he’s spending a week to audition for several top drawer music schools, including the Manhattan School of Music and the world famous Juilliard School. He completed his first audition the day before, and is prepping for his second at the Juilliard School tomorrow. “There was a lot of material to prepare,” he says.” It’s a very specific audition, very different than other auditions, and every adjudicator knows the material you bring in very well.”

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Caldwell has actually been involved in music for quite some time: “I started in fourth grade at my elementary school concert band,” he recalls “But really,” he says, “I started even earlier, when I was six years old, studying piano with Lynn McPherson.” His efforts to become a serious jazz musician might be due in part to the influence of his parents. “As a youngster, they had always put jazz music on to get me to fall asleep. But when I first heard live jazz, which was more exciting than what they played, I dove in headfirst.” A variety of other factors led Caldwell to SCPA. “I love the program there. I was recruited by the [former] director, John Reynolds, and his main [selling point] was some of the kids who were already there, people like John and Carmen Murray and Brenda Greggio. Unfortunately, Covid cut our high school days short, but it has been a significant growth period.” Caldwell has advanced to the point where he’s playing gigs with some of his teachers from the Conservatory. “That has been pretty surreal. Gilbert [Castellanos] has introduced me to the highest caliber musicians in the world, so I feel very fortunate.”

Practicing, rehearsing, and performing isn’t always easy to fit in with mundane matters like schoolwork. “Well, that can be tough sometimes, but I have to put school first, because without that, I wouldn’t have these other opportunities. Otherwise, music would be too much fun. My parents have been really good about staying on top of me about getting my schoolwork done and getting good grades.” And he keeps up a rigorous rehearsal routine. “I try to devote one or two hours every day to practicing. It might not be with the whole horn, especially on a trip like this. I end up just pulling out the part of the horn that I can run my fingers over. Same thing with the flute. At this point, I’m really trying to learn every song I know in all 12 keys, to solidify my basics. I’m not really working on anything too crazy right now, just trying to get all of my musicianship at a level that I’m comfortable with. I guess the trick is to think of it as one step at a time. I think my development has been in a straight line. I haven’t really slowed down or sped up too much. I just try to keep moving towards the next thing.”

Caldwell is keeping his long-term goals realistic. “Well, I’d like to get an apartment in NYC before I finish college, and I’d like to have an album out of my own music by the time I’m done as well. I think that keeping it simple is the main key to achieving my goals. I see myself living in New York and keeping up my practice. I’d also like to tour Europe; a lot of my friends have done that, and it looks so amazing.”

For a young player, he cites interesting prime musical influences. “Playing-wise, I think my top two would be Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. I love Joe’s tone and the energy in his playing, and I can say the same about Sonny’s influence. I try to keep both of their sound concepts in mind. But I cannot escape or deny the fact that I’ve studied the music of John Coltrane for 90 percent of my career as a saxophonist. John Coltrane is the bread and butter of my language. I mean, most of my early compositions were amalgamations of different Coltrane tunes.”

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Nick Caldwell: from gigging with Greggio to jamming at Juilliard?
Nick Caldwell: from gigging with Greggio to jamming at Juilliard?

“I’ve been playing sax for seven and half years,” says Nick Caldwell, a 17-year-old high school senior who attends the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts in Paradise Hills, and who is also a charter pupil of Gilbert Castellanos’ Young Lions Jazz Conservatory on the weekends. He’s talking to me over the phone from NYC, where he’s spending a week to audition for several top drawer music schools, including the Manhattan School of Music and the world famous Juilliard School. He completed his first audition the day before, and is prepping for his second at the Juilliard School tomorrow. “There was a lot of material to prepare,” he says.” It’s a very specific audition, very different than other auditions, and every adjudicator knows the material you bring in very well.”

Sponsored
Sponsored

Caldwell has actually been involved in music for quite some time: “I started in fourth grade at my elementary school concert band,” he recalls “But really,” he says, “I started even earlier, when I was six years old, studying piano with Lynn McPherson.” His efforts to become a serious jazz musician might be due in part to the influence of his parents. “As a youngster, they had always put jazz music on to get me to fall asleep. But when I first heard live jazz, which was more exciting than what they played, I dove in headfirst.” A variety of other factors led Caldwell to SCPA. “I love the program there. I was recruited by the [former] director, John Reynolds, and his main [selling point] was some of the kids who were already there, people like John and Carmen Murray and Brenda Greggio. Unfortunately, Covid cut our high school days short, but it has been a significant growth period.” Caldwell has advanced to the point where he’s playing gigs with some of his teachers from the Conservatory. “That has been pretty surreal. Gilbert [Castellanos] has introduced me to the highest caliber musicians in the world, so I feel very fortunate.”

Practicing, rehearsing, and performing isn’t always easy to fit in with mundane matters like schoolwork. “Well, that can be tough sometimes, but I have to put school first, because without that, I wouldn’t have these other opportunities. Otherwise, music would be too much fun. My parents have been really good about staying on top of me about getting my schoolwork done and getting good grades.” And he keeps up a rigorous rehearsal routine. “I try to devote one or two hours every day to practicing. It might not be with the whole horn, especially on a trip like this. I end up just pulling out the part of the horn that I can run my fingers over. Same thing with the flute. At this point, I’m really trying to learn every song I know in all 12 keys, to solidify my basics. I’m not really working on anything too crazy right now, just trying to get all of my musicianship at a level that I’m comfortable with. I guess the trick is to think of it as one step at a time. I think my development has been in a straight line. I haven’t really slowed down or sped up too much. I just try to keep moving towards the next thing.”

Caldwell is keeping his long-term goals realistic. “Well, I’d like to get an apartment in NYC before I finish college, and I’d like to have an album out of my own music by the time I’m done as well. I think that keeping it simple is the main key to achieving my goals. I see myself living in New York and keeping up my practice. I’d also like to tour Europe; a lot of my friends have done that, and it looks so amazing.”

For a young player, he cites interesting prime musical influences. “Playing-wise, I think my top two would be Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. I love Joe’s tone and the energy in his playing, and I can say the same about Sonny’s influence. I try to keep both of their sound concepts in mind. But I cannot escape or deny the fact that I’ve studied the music of John Coltrane for 90 percent of my career as a saxophonist. John Coltrane is the bread and butter of my language. I mean, most of my early compositions were amalgamations of different Coltrane tunes.”

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