The Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco was founded with a simple but ambitious mission: to preserve the traditions of Latin jazz and Afro-Cuban music by teaching it to young musicians, who can then become role models for future aspiring artists.
Now in its fourteenth year, the ensemble has been home to over 120 young Bay Area musicians, developing a love for the music and joining a community of elder players who’ve helped shaped it. The group has opened for greats such as Poncho Sanchez and the Cuban bassist Israel “Cachao” López, jammed with the likes of pianist Chuchito Valdés, and recorded three albums — including “Con Mis Manos,” released earlier this year, which includes student musicians playing alongside notable guests including Louie Romero, John Santos, and Jerry Gonzalez.
As the artist-in-resident youth ensemble of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, the group is often seen headlining energetic dance salsa concerts around town, performing classics like Celia Cruz’ “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” and Miguel Matamoros’ “Lágrimas Negras.” In addition to their fresh arrangements of popular favorites, they also play original tunes, often melding funk and soul with Latin jazz.
“It’s definitely opened up my world, working with and getting to know some incredible musicians who I never would’ve met otherwise,” says 17-year-old Xiadani Avila, one of the group’s singers who has commuted from Modesto — sometimes weekly — for band practices and performances since joining the group three years ago. “I’ve learned to be confident, and to trust myself, which I lacked when I first started.”
Musical Director John Calloway has witnessed countless members take a similar journey. “That’s my joy, watching them grow from having difficulty keeping time and holding the ensemble together, to becoming prominent soloists,” says Calloway, a music teacher and professional musician.
Calloway runs the group with partners Arturo Riera, a leading Bay Area curator and promoter of Latin music who manages the band and its bookings, and Sylvia Ramirez, who brings television industry experience in marketing for the group and coaching the youth in stage presence. Together the three have managed to sustain the group on earnings from gigs, and they’ve stayed committed to keeping young musicians’ participation in the group free.
“We were intentional about starting this group with zero limits to entry, and unlike a lot of groups that have to cream the crop, we are able to achieve real diversity,” says Riera.
The ensemble attracts young musicians from diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds, and girls and young women in the group find themselves equal participants in roles playing piano, trombone, sax, and bass, where they’re often underrepresented in the music industry.
Many alumni have continued as professional musicians. Standouts include Natalie Cressman, who’s played with jazz luminaries like Nicholas Payton, Wycliffe Gordon and Peter Apfelbaum; Charles Ferguson and his Afro-beat band Zongo Junction; Daniel Riera and the newly-formed Soltrón SF, recently gaining fanfare for its “New Mission” sound; and guitarist Francesca Simone, who recently joined Beyoncé’s stage band.
“We don’t treat the members as kids, but as you would any professional musician,” says Riera. “Practice, show up on time, and when you play, give the performance of your life every time.”