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Within the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, talented young jazz musicians have a place to play and grow into themselves.

Next Generation Jazz Orchestra musicians (1981)

Next Generation Jazz Orchestra musicians play in 1981. The program has been attracting top young musicians from across the country for 51 years.

Bradley Zeve here. The high school experience—if you care to remember those awkward, formative years—was riddled with opportunity, some of it actually expansive. For many, those years are also a time when fitting in is a do-or-die prerogative, and standing out in any way, whether it be for your tastes or talents, is not exactly positive.

The students who are part of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, which is the subject of one part of the cover story in this week’s print edition of the Weekly, definitely stand out. These high school musicians are the best among their peers. Their devotion to this art form is a brave example of independent spirit. Many of us might have been similarly catapulted had we had that opportunity.

(The second part of this week’s cover story, written by Paul Wilner, is about the musical tributes to jazz greats John and Alice Coltrane that are taking place at this year’s 65th annual Monterey Jazz Festival. There’s also a helpful guide to the immense oeuvre of the Coltranes.)

One of my first loves in high school was jazz. She came to me, seduced me, broadened my life and helped me better appreciate some of the rock and roll that was my first teacher. During those years I worked in a retail record store selling all kinds of music and my manager, Scott, required me to take home a jazz album after every shift so I “knew my shit.” Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, George Benson and Mary Lou Williams were “locals” and required special attention and knowledge. Wayne Shorter, the Crusaders, Grover Washington, Jr. were game changers and made many for happy return customers, wanting more. 

I started listening to jazz on the radio—WAMU-AM was a straight-ahead jazz station where the afternoon DJ would close his show with this: “Stay sweet, watch out for the onion man.” It was evident that jazz had personality. I liked that. Subsequently I started seeing professional jazz players live (for $1) at the University of Pittsburgh Jazz Seminar—near where I grew up—and my young mind was blown open. Thank you Dr. Nathan Davis. He turned us all on to Max Roach, Donald Byrd and Richard Davis, and educated anyone willing to listen about the history of jazz, years before Ken Burns’ epic documentary series

Entering my freshman year of college, I hoped to work at the college radio station, and the only available DJ spot was for jazz. To the station manager’s delight and my surprise it became my slot, renamed Jazz Now. Jazz followers tuned in, but not my roommate nor other friends. They called it “Jazz Later.”

There is popular music and unpopular music—today jazz is not in the first category (although it once was), accounting for less than 2 percent of U.S. music consumption. Most don’t appreciate its complexity, although jazz can be sweet or intense, melodic or discordant, the improvisational interplay sometimes gets way out there. And if you listen to jazz at a young age, much less choose to pursue jazz in high school, you’re the very definition of unique. Some might call you iconoclastic. That’s a compliment.

The MJF’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra is a home for spirited creativity. Talented young jazz musicians have a place to play and grow into themselves. Study with professionals, learn the standards, be pushed to play at a higher level, learn to be on time, in tune. These are the basic rewards. The next tier: a launchpad to a professional career in jazz. Over the course of the program’s 51 years, many musicians have taken this path, a number from Monterey County, too

(They are also amazing musicians right nowyou can watch a video of the performance of the 2021 NGJO here. Or their virtual 2020 performance here.)

Here’s to celebrating all the mavericks, all of those young explorers who celebrate, even relish, the unpopular. And to you young jazz musicians, thank you. You remind the rest of us that freedom is free, including the freedom to do our own thing, all while playing with others, in tune, on time, whether in a duo, trio, quartet or even a big orchestra with inspired and improvised conversation.

Read full newsletter here.

Founding Editor & CEO of the Weekly, September 1988. Bradley serves as the Free Speech Chair on the board of the national Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

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