OK, sure, jazz may not be as popular with today’s typical teenager than, say, Shawn Mendes or The Weeknd or, of course, Drake. But there is a number of high-schoolers whose passion for jazz and talent with their instruments are helping the genre continue to thrive with a new generation.
The JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band wrapped up our Sound of Jazz concert series on March 25 with a show at the Old Mill. They were joined by Shirantha Beddage, a two-time Juno-nominated baritone saxophonist, composer and educator from Toronto.
Several of these young musicians from Toronto and the surrounding area have been playing together for years and are getting set to graduate this spring. Wherever they go from there, the future looks bright.
These veterans of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band have been honing their skills under the direction of Jules Estrin and have shared stages with Randy Brecker, Ron Westray, Kelly Jefferson and more. Now, they’re setting their sights on the next stage of their music careers — and it’s certainly worth keeping an eye on them to see where they end up.
Here’s what four of the soon-to-be graduates have to say about how the experience of playing with the band has helped them explore their love of jazz — and where you might expect to see them play next.
This potential star-in-the-making has already released three solo albums while still attending high school in Brantford, Ont. Avery Raquel’s latest, My Heart Away, debuted at No. 11 on the iTunes chart of the top 200 Canadian R&B and soul albums when she released it last April.
But while Raquel has recently been leaning toward a sound inspired by contemporary R&B and soul artists like Amy Winehouse and Daniel Caesar, her jazz roots go way back to her childhood. Her father introduced her to the genre when she was seven years old, first with Ray Charles’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. He had her sing the song, and she fell in love with picking out new notes and melodies and began her deeper exploration of jazz. Without her parents, “I wouldn’t be where I am,” Raquel says. “I’m not too sure where I’d be. They always push me, but not to the point where I’m annoyed.”
Raquel’s first favourites included jazz classics Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker and Carmen McRae. Then she discovered her love of ’70s Motown through Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5.
My Heart Away is an album of entirely original songs that follow young love from its beginning to end. Raquel wrote the songs and recorded them with Toronto producer Greg Kavanagh. “We called it putting a new twist on a vintage sound,” she says.
This is Raquel’s third year with the Youth Big Band, after skipping last year to pursue her own music. She says playing with the band has been endlessly fun and has given her opportunities to sing from iconic stages to appreciative crowds.
“It gives me chills every time I hear them,” Raquel says. “Everyone in the band is so extremely talented. I love doing gigs with them and I like seeing the audience response. That kind of music, you don’t really hear it anywhere anymore, which is unfortunate. So it’s really nice to see the audience response, talk to them afterwards, and feel it on stage, too. You have no idea how much fun we have on that stage.”
As she prepares to graduate high school, Raquel is setting her sights on a career in music. She’s been accepted into Berklee College of Music in Boston, Humber College in Toronto and Mohawk College in Hamilton, and she’s waiting to hear from the University of Toronto and McGill University before making a decision.
Raquel says she wants to keep recording and performing, but on an even larger scale. She’s already graced the stages of Roy Thomson Hall and Koerner Hall, sung the national anthem at a Blue Jays game, and performed at numerous clubs and jazz festivals in Ontario. Now it’s just a matter of keeping those gigs coming.
“I love doing that and don’t want that to change,” she says. “It’s just about pushing myself out there more and keep doing what I’m doing.”
This trombonist has been playing for eight years, and has played with the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band for all four years he’s been attending Etobicoke School of the Arts. Not only that, but Nick Forget also plays in the Hannaford Youth Band and three school ensembles, and has previously played in the Toronto Youth Wind Orchestra, the Conn-Selmer Centrestage Jazz Band at MusicFest Canada, and the Clark Terry Big Band (directed by Chris Crenshaw) at the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra’s Summer Jazz Academy.
Talk about keeping busy.
“Jazz really spoke to me,” Forget says. “It pulled me in. I find it fascinating, how it works. And it’s so much fun.”
Forget has a particular fondness for improvisation, which has led to him taking on a role as a main soloist in the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. He idolizes Charlie Parker for his virtuosity and innovation and Wynton Marsalis for his confidence and fearlessness. Those are the artists Forget wants to be like.
“With trombone, it’s very easy to get by being a good player,” he says. “But I don’t want to be somebody who gets by. I want to be the person who blows everyone away. I think if I continue working at it, I could do it.”
When Forget joined the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band at 14 years old, it was the first time he had played music with people his own age. It showed him that those goals — before he even consciously considered them — were actually attainable.
“I thought, this is actually doable. I can do this,” he says. “It encouraged me … because I had never actually seen high-schoolers play at such an incredible level.”
So far, Forget has studied with Terry Promane, David Archer, Charles Gray, Lucian Gray, Matt Jefferson, Kelsley Grant, Brian O’Kane, Vincent Gardner, Chris Crenshaw and Ron Westray. Now, he plans to continue studying jazz full-time after he graduates. After that, he’ll see where it takes him. “I’m a natural improviser, so that’s kind of my thing,” he says.
He says he’d love to keep playing, record albums, and maybe even have his own songs played on JAZZ.FM91. Plus, he hopes to one day help a younger generation discover their own love of music, the same way others did for him.
“I just want to keep going,” he says. “I want to test the limits.”
This multi-instrumentalist considers herself a bit of a late bloomer, but her love of big band music has really blossomed. Gabriella Ellingham from Baden, Ont., is in her third year playing baritone saxophone with the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band, and she also plays the flute and clarinet.
Her father Paul Ellingham runs both the Big Band Theory and the Royal City Big Band, and her brother Taylor plays as well; he was even a member of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band in its second year, also playing the baritone sax. But despite coming from a musical family, Gabriella only got into it when she was forced to take a music class in Grade 6. Eventually, there came a day when her dad took her to see a big band, and it clicked.
“I fell in love with it,” she says. “I didn’t fall in love with the concert bands that he took me to, but I absolutely fell in love with big band music.”
Some of her favourites are Charlie Parker and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, but it wasn’t just the artists that inspired her — Ellingham largely credits her mentors at school for really sparking her interest.
“I’ve had really, really great school music teachers,” she says. “They were just so amazing. It was why I wanted to go to music class. It was one of the only enjoyable classes because of them. I’ve just been really lucky that there are such great music teachers here in Baden.”
Now, Ellingham is gunning for a double degree in music and financial mathematics at Laurier University. While she’s not planning on going pro, she plans on always doing it for the passion.
“Professional musicians around here don’t all enjoy music as much as a lot of the people I know who are doing it as a hobby,” she says. “I don’t know if I could just sit and do an accounting job for the rest of my life. Music would be my life.”
This fourth-year member of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band has been playing trumpet for close to seven years, having discovered his passion for jazz thanks to Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. He has studied with Norman Engel since he began playing, and plays in several other bands at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto. Plus, he drums in his church band, too.
“The reason I fell in love with jazz is because of its dramatically contrasting sound to classical music,” Pandy says. “The relaxed, perfectly imperfect sounds drew me in, since I was also able to experiment with different sounds in my improvisation. I enjoy having a good laugh with my fellow trumpet players any time during a gig and it being perfectly acceptable.”
He says he’s learned a great deal under the tutelage of the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band’s lead trumpeter Leo Silva.
Pandy says he often has the powerful sounds of the Stan Kenton Orchestra in mind when he’s with the big band — but it’s not just jazz that inspires his playing.
“Those high-energy tunes have always been my favourite to play. It gets my adrenaline flowing,” he says. “But I also love listening to country music. Its relaxed, acoustic feel inspires me to create emotion in my trumpet playing, and to not be afraid to let the audience feel my emotion through my instrument.”
Pandy says he plans to pursue a degree in engineering, but he still wants to fulfill his passion for jazz by joining his university band and keeping the music going.
“I’ve been honoured to play with some of the brightest young jazz musicians, and I’ll truly miss the three-hour block of time every week in which I can let loose and enjoy creating music with these amazing musicians,” he says.