New Cats On The Block
A quartet of young lions comes to town just as the Monterey Jazz Fest's High School Competition heats up.
Thursday, April 4, 2002
When James Williams was three years old, he was already a drummer. From pots and pans to conga drums, it was like the whole world was an instrument waiting for someone to coax its deepest rhythms out into the light of day. By age six, he was taking his music-making to his family''s church, where he discovered the spirit of the gospel-both its message and the joyous music used to express it.
He''s all grown up now. Last year, while still a senior at Monterey High, James won the Jimmy Lyons Scholarship to Boston''s prestigious Berklee College of Music. With this award, created seven years ago to honor the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival, James joins the select company of fellow Monterey High graduate Milton Fletcher, a pianist, Pacific Grove trumpeter Erik Telford (the award''s first recipient) and Carmel cellist Rushad Eggleston, all phenomenal musicians from this area granted full scholarships to the world''s largest independent music school.
This week, James and Milton, both of Seaside, will be back in town as one half of the Berklee All-Star Quartet, the student group selected to represent the elite college. The Quartet''s much-anticipated performance scheduled for last year''s Monterey Jazz Festival was canceled due to the events of September 11. To make up for the missed concert, they will perform tonight at The Jazz and Blues Company, in Carmel. Rounding out the quartet are two Texans, rising saxophone star Walter Smith and acclaimed bassist Mark Kelley.
In a phone interview I asked Milton how he is enjoying Boston. While he misses California''s weather and its "vibe," it is clear he is thriving at Berklee. What sets Berklee apart from other music schools is its parallel emphasis on the business, not just artistic, aspects of a professional music career. Then there are the incredible performance opportunities that come with studying at a top-flight school. Last year, Milton was part of a group that played at New York''s legendary Blue Note. He has also performed with such luminaries as Lewis Nash, Terri Lynn Carrington and Donald Harrison.
Both Milton and James sing the praises of one of their professors, trombonist Hal Crook, who teaches combo classes. What makes Crook''s teaching style so special, according to James, is "insight, knowledge, a heart for teaching," he says. "I''m really learning different ways to play, new and better ways to express myself. With him, solid technique is a given; he encourages you to open yourself up, to focus on being creative."
Like Milton, James is also drawn to courses that deal with the financial and legal aspects of the music industry. His goal after he graduates in 2005 is to start his own music company, one with a mission. James describes music as a tool, a vehicle to celebrate and share with others the strength of his Christian faith. "Good music, good message," he summarizes.
James and Milton''s homecoming gig this week coincides with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School Competition, now in its 32nd year. Both young men will be available during Saturday''s competition for conversations with high schoolers from all around the country, giving aspiring young musicians a glimpse of how far their dedication might take them.
The competition, held every spring at the Monterey County Fairgrounds, is different from many other youth contests around the country, explains Stella Le-Pine, the Festival''s Education Program Coordinator. It is by invitation only (based on audition tapes), and there is no entrance fee, so the kids who will be competing on Saturday are musicians of the highest level. For nearly three decades the competition focused on identifying and honoring jazz talent exclusively in Northern California. Three years ago the Festival''s Board of Directors decided to make the contest national, and this year''s young contestants hail from Nevada, Washington, Texas, New York, and throughout California.
"It''s really a great event," says LePine. "People come down from the Bay Area for it, they come from all over." LePine says such performances-which are free and open to the public-are especially magical for children. "Seeing these incredible high school musicians, it really lights a fire under the younger kids. It''s inspiring, it gives them an incentive to learn how to play an instrument. Watching live music can make a big difference in a child''s life."
LePine speaks admiringly of the high school musicians. "You give up a lot to reach this level, a lot of childhood," she says. "It takes hard work, dedication and devotion."
But the benefits are many and lasting. In addition to the chance to launch one''s career-past competition participants include such success stories as Joshua Redman, Patrice Rushen, Benny Green and Larry Grenadier-there are more intangible benefits as well. "Music makes better people!" LePine exclaims. "It''s such an important part of growing up, and it helps one''s learning ability in all areas, not just in music."
Saturday''s winners can also look forward to joining in September the 2002 Festival''s impressive roster of performers, which includes Redman, Brian Blade, Roy Hargrove, Charlie Haden, Dave Brubeck and Paula West.
LePine''s goal is to see the benefits of music education experienced by more children, especially at the elementary school level, which is when musicians (and music-lovers) are created. Last year a Latin jazz outreach program brought instruments and a passion for music to three Salinas elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school, all lacking music programs. "The kids really pay attention," LePine says. "They learn not to be afraid of their own voice."
Alan Schultz, who runs the radio station KRML and the Jazz and Blues Company in Carmel, agrees that this area has a long tradition of supporting music education. In an interview in his office next to KRML''s broadcast booth, Schultz speaks about jazz from the perspective of someone who has experienced first-hand many of its greatest moments. He opens up one file cabinet drawer after another, each one packed to the gills with folders. "Each one of these is a concert," he says, pointing to a veritable archive of local jazz history. After tonight there will be a file for the Berklee All-Star Quartet, a permanent record of the group''s first performance at the Carmel store.
Schultz has seen young artists such as Milton and James grow up and develop musically. In 1999 he and his wife chaperoned the Festival''s High School All-Star Band, which included Milton, on a tour that took them to the jazz festival in Montreux, Canada, and on to Umbria, in Italy. He says that the realities of touring, from uncooperative weather to glitches in sound systems, from illness and homesickness to fickle audiences, are all part of the education of a young artist.
Competitions like those held in Monterey provide another crucial element: the chance for local kids to compare their efforts with those of high-quality musicians from all around the country. It''s a huge competition, and the stakes are high, yet what makes jazz such a unique art form is the feeling of intimacy created by a small group of musicians surrounded by a roomful of ardent jazz fans. At the Jazz and Blues Company, that sense of intimacy is heightened by the low-key, cozy atmosphere. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own wine and hunker down for some great jazz; the admission price covers two sets.
Both Milton and James, who have played the Jazz and Blues Company with other groups, mention the intimate atmosphere at the Carmel store. Milton adds that the type of music he plays and how he will play it often depends on the specific type of venue and audience, further evidence of this young man''s finely-tuned mind. It''s a lot to think about: the business element, the environment of performing spaces, the particularities of diverse audiences-so many myriad details that go into a great performance.
And then, of course, there''s the music itself. Schultz says that after all these years of hearing incredible musicians, the source of their creativity will always remain something of a mystery. "These young kids, when they sit down to their instruments and focus, they get lost in the creative process. It''s genius on command," he says. "We just eavesdrop."
The Berklee All-Star Quartet will perform tonight (April 4) at 7:30pm at the Jazz and Blues Company in Carmel (236 The Crossroads, Carmel; $15; 624-6431). On Friday at 8pm, Milton Fletcher and James Williams will co-lead a group at the Hyatt Regency in Monterey. The Quartet will perform a second time on Saturday night at the Monterey Jazz Festival High School Competition. The Peter Erskine Trio and Latin jazz artist Mark Levine will also play on Friday and Saturday. For Competition schedule see page 25 or visit www.montereyjazzfestival.org.