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.