SJZ All-Stars

Packed full of musical overachievers, San Jose Jazz’s High School All Stars program offers advanced young musicians the chance to push one another to new heights.

Inside a classroom in San Jose State’s music building, San Jose Jazz High School All Stars (HSAS) Music Director Aaron Lington prepares to cue the big band into a Tito Puente tune. “This is a very aggressive style. It’s a take-no-prisoners kind of thing,” he prefaces before counting in the tune from the top.

He’s right. The horns are bright and punchy—a hard-edged counterpoint to the percussive piano grounding the ensemble. The band works through the song for about 30 seconds before Lington cuts them off. He’s spotted a teaching moment. “What isn’t awesome about it?” he asks the room of high achievers, content to facilitate a dialogue. Greeted with brief silence, he fills in the blank: “Everyone’s not playing the articulation the same way.” Articulation—the way each note is emphasized—isn’t being followed in unison by the brass section, leading to a mild atonality. Picking up again, they make quick work of the roadblock, the troubling section now sounding pristine.

The moment is a great reflection of Lington’s crystal-clear command of the room. Throughout the rehearsal, his focus and criticism is acute, delivered with speed and precision. It also speaks to the high degree of musicality present in the room. The pacing of his live touchups would be difficult for a novice to keep up with; this, however, is the San Jose Jazz High School All Stars, a collection of nearly two dozen musicians from throughout the region that are among the most talented high school instrumentalists around.

San Jose Jazz’s High School All Stars program, founded in 1997, fields a full big band each season from October through August. The audition-based band was created to help advanced music students find a musical kinship with like-minded musicians. Throughout the season, the program advances each student’s understanding of music theory, arranging, composition, performance, and jazz history. This year’s All Stars are comprised of 19 musicians from 13 schools throughout the South Bay and Peninsula.

The All Stars come in two formats: the full big band and the small combo, called the U19s. This pared-down group, selected by Lington, gives a handful of ensemble members an intimate, student-led experience performing in a working band. The U19s often feature simply a rhythm section and a few brass soloists.

Several ensemble members mention that All Stars rehearsals and performances offer a level of focus they wouldn’t otherwise receive in their school bands. This is a point echoed by Brian Belluscio, a first-year ensemble member who’s a sophomore at Leland High School. There, he’s active in the school’s jazz combo and wind ensemble. “The skill’s higher here,” he says of the All Stars. “I definitely have to practice a lot to keep up with everybody.” He’s following in the footsteps of his brother, Austin, a former All Star who previously filled in on trombone as well.

At this rehearsal, pianist Shane Turner seems most at ease among those in the ensemble, either because this is his fourth year as an All Star or because the rhythm section has received few notes tonight. He seems destined to follow his passion in music. He remembers recalling song lyrics almost word for word at a time when he could barely form sentences and crawling into bed with his ukulele at age three or four. Asked if the All Stars has helped him progress as a player over his four years with the group, Turner says, “Tons. Absolutely tons. Some of that is alone time, because you grow on your own, but I’ve become a much better player, especially in my earlier years with the ensemble, going through and playing the charts we do. You play with some really good players. It forces you to get better.”

He may now be the seasoned veteran, but Turner remembers when he was the wide-eyed freshman of the group, trying his best to keep up with far superior players. This season, there’s a freshman drummer, and Turner and his fellow upperclassmen now have the chance to push their younger counterpart by kindly reminding the newbie from time to time to pick up the pace.

Carlos Solorzano, a senior from Willow Glen High School in his first year with the band, felt energized by the discomfort and unfamiliarity of playing with a group of strangers at the All Stars’ first rehearsals. For him, the unfamiliarity helps keep the focus on the music. “Since you don’t see each other every day—you aren’t schoolmates—it’s not like you’re very comfortable right off the bat,” he notes. “Everyone wants to be their best when they’re not playing with people they’re the most comfortable with at the beginning.” He has experience playing with all-star student ensembles in the past, but they were usually one-time events. He craved something more regular, which is exactly what he gains from the All Stars’ weekly rehearsals.“I have a home band, a weekly band that I can see,” he shares. “It’s people I can call up for gigs that live in the area, not just the entire state.”

All Stars alumnus Nick Panoutsos is currently studying at NYU and freelancing as a musician out in New York and back in the Bay Area when he’s home. To him, those opportunities came thanks to being pushed as a High School All Star. During his season and a half with the ensemble, the group gave him the confidence to step into new roles. “Debuting some of my arrangements with the combo at Cafe Stritch for Winter Fest was a highlight of my experience with HSAS,” he says. “Winter and Summer Fest 2016 provided me with early valuable experience as a bandleader, when I was faced with the responsibility of writing out arrangements and organizing combo rehearsals. The experience provided me with the confidence and necessary skills to lead my own projects after graduating.”

Another common point among All Stars is the reverence they all share for Music Director Aaron Lington. That’s for a good reason: in addition to his work with the All Stars, he’s coordinator of jazz studies at San Jose State and has been named the 2011 Jazz Educator of the Year by the California Music Educators Association. He’s also a gigging baritone saxophonist and Grammy Award winner, earning the accolade for his work with the Pacific Mambo Orchestra. “Aaron is a force—he’s absolutely brilliant,” says Turner. “He has a lot of patience and compassion. He says what he wants out of the group and gives a little bit of lenience for what he thinks the players can and can’t do.”

It may be hard work, but the High School All Stars all seem energized by the chance to pursue new musical challenges together. “Studying jazz is essential for a complete musical education. Not only does it require a sophisticated knowledge of harmony and rhythm, but it demands extreme vulnerability and flexibility from its performers,” adds Panoutsos. “I speak from personal experience when I say that learning this music is an invaluable vehicle for self-discovery and growth.”


Written by Brandon roos
Photography by Daniel Garcia


This article originally appeared in Issue 10.3 “Profiles”

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