The SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble, a program of SFJAZZ, has proven to be fertile ground for some of the most promising jazz talents in the Bay Area. For the hundreds of students auditioning for the 20-piece ensemble, the experience provides a unique opportunity to play with other accomplished student musicians. Spark shows the group from audition to performance in the episode “The Young and the Restless.”
Auditions are held every September, and Spark follows two students, drummer Ruthie Price and trombonist Emma Kelp-Stebbins. Dr. Dee Spencer, director of the ensemble, talks about her responses to both young women’s auditions and why they were accepted. Proud of all her students, she states, “I couldn’t play like that when I was that age. To have your own voice at 16 or 15 — that’s remarkable.”
For the young players, the prestige of being part of this ensemble is inspiring. Price says that “being on stage is like the home for all performers — where everyone sees you play your best or your worst.” Kelp-Stebbins says one of the main reasons she pursues jazz is that it is one of the hardest kinds of music, and “you can literally play it your whole life and always be learning something new about it and yourself because it is so complex.”
When the final ensemble has been assembled, Dr. Spencer leads and directs them, ensuring that they sound as polished as possible in the very short period of time they have to prepare for two high-profile events. Dr. Spencer chooses a challenging arrangement of the tune “Oleo,” by Sonny Rollins, one that many adult groups would not perform. Knowing her students’ abilities and their dedication, Dr. Spencer is uncompromising and has faith that it will come together.
More about SFJAZZ
Founded in 1983 under the name of Jazz in the City, the organization adopted its new identity as SFJAZZ in late 1999. SFJAZZ is dedicated to the growth of jazz and jazz audiences, celebrating this music as a living art built on a constantly evolving tradition, with concert performers ranging from acknowledged masters to the newest and most promising talents on the international, national and Bay Area scenes. Through the SFJAZZ Meet the Masters program, the students participating in the SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble enjoy regular workshops, master classes and mentoring sessions with leading jazz artists, such as Branford Marsalis and Toshiko Akiyoshi, as well with as the SFJAZZ Collective. The SFJAZZ All-Star High School Ensemble have played in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Competition and the San Francisco Jazz Festival and in top professional jazz venues throughout California.