Youth Orchestra’s Life-Changing Experience


Melissa Aldana and Sean Jones work with the NYO Jazz youth orchestra on recording the group’s first full-length album.

(Photo: Chris Lee)

By her very presence, baritone saxophonist Noa Zebley ― a 17-year-old woman of unassuming personality and modest proportion ― belies the outsized stereotype of a big-horn player. In action, she blows the stereotype to bits, whether she is overdubbing the bari part to Neal Hefti’s tasty “Cute” or ripping a solo on Ralph Peterson’s edgy “Art Of War.”

Zebley, a native of the San Francisco Bay area, had occasion to do both in July at the State University of New York at Purchase, where NYO Jazz, the newest of three youth orchestras sponsored by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, was in the final days of its fourth annual three-week residency.

The overdubbing found Zebley alone on a Wednesday onstage at the college’s recital hall-cum-recording space. Headphones in place, she was playing along with a track the orchestra had laid down for what will be the first album released by any of the NYO Jazz bands.

Three days later, Zebley was onstage at the college’s concert hall with the full orchestra, rendering her “Art Of War” solo during a residency-concluding livestream concert. Like the album, that concert was a first: Never had the program’s closing performance, normally held before an audience at Carnegie Hall, been replaced by a livestream involving band members gathered in one room.

Last year, amid the pandemic, the program linked participants through video-conferencing. This year, it resumed convening students for in-person sessions. But, with some COVID restrictions still in place, the Carnegie Hall concert was off; likewise, the program’s European tour. With additional time and money on their hands, the organizers decided to produce the album, which will be out around year’s end.

The added time also allowed the band to break into small groups over the course of the residency, while the additional money made it possible to break ground by expanding the roster. Another first came in the form of a gender breakthrough on baritone saxophone, with Zebley the first woman to hold that chair ― and to great effect.

“She’s unapologetically herself and she’s a foundation for the ensemble in terms of poise, stability and expression,” said trumpeter and educator Sean Jones, the program’s bandleader and artistic director.

Zebley was hardly the only woman involved in the program. Five of the nine faculty advisors were women, as were five of the band members ― a significant presence, given the numerical advantage males still hold in big bands. About 150 applications were received for 25 spots this year, said Joanna Massey, Carnegie Hall’s director, learning and engagement. The program, she said, is working toward eventual gender parity.

“It’s a huge priority for us,” she said. “We spend a lot of time thinking about recruiting young women, supporting young women.”

Beyond Zebley, those efforts are yielding results. In rehearsal ― and at the livestream ― trumpeter Kellin Hanas and violinist Gianna Pedregon, young women both, played off each other’s improvisations on Duke Ellington and Harold Baker’s “Mr. Gentle And Mr. Cool” with such easy assurance that their peers jokingly renamed the piece “Ms. Gentle and Ms. Cool.”

The female presence extended to the guest soloist, Melissa Aldana. The saxophonist, who recorded two tracks with the band that will appear on the album, was duly impressed with the organizers’ recruiting work, which she saw as part of a larger movement.

“I definitely saw a lot of girls, more than usual,” she said. “I do see a change, and it’s beautiful to see.”

Zebley noted the contrast between the “severely uncomfortable” environment she had experienced around some older male musicians and that of NYO Jazz, where she enjoyed respect from the “kind” and “polite” young men.

While Jones acknowledged the occasional culture clash among the musicians ― this year’s crop was a diverse group hailing from 12 states ― by residency’s end he had honed the band into a tight unit whose members overwhelmingly viewed the experience as positive, even life-changing.

For 16-year-old Levi Rozek of Noblesville, Indiana ― a soft-spoken trumpeter whose smartly shaped solo on Quincy Jones’ “Pleasingly Plump” reflected his admiration for pianist Bill Evans ― the residency proved a kind of affirmation.

“It was reassuring to me to find that there are other musicians my age who care about the music as much as I do,” he said, “because at my high school it’s not always the case.”

For Zebley, meanwhile, the sense of community at NYO Jazz had altered her view of the future: “Since I’ve been here it’s changed dramatically. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where I go, what I do, as long as I’m happy and creating an environment where I can support a musical family.” DB

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