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Meet The Flannels, a Teenage Band Making Jazz Feel Like a Party

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The Flannels with guest keyboardist Johnny. Back row, left to right: Miles Blackwell, Johnny, Miles Turk, Vincent MacLauchlan. Front row, left to right: Malcolm, Yaya, Kazeem, Iona Kambouridis.  (Julian Currier)

Editor’s note: It’s KQED Youth Takeover week. From April 25-29, we’re featuring stories by high school students from around the Bay Area.

Squeezing through a crowd of high school students at one of The Flannels’ backyard shows, listeners are in for a multi-medium artistic treat.

Here, an attendee might dance the night away, invigorated by the band’s buoyant, bouncy jazz-funk sound, or comb through the curated collection of art for sale, all in the same backyard.

Whether it’s the handmade jackets, the oil paintings, the music or simply the chance to be a part of something fun, there’s something for everybody at a Flannels show.

To me, jazz has always had an enigmatic aura of inaccessibility. The genre conjures up memories of having to put on a nice shirt to go to Yoshi’s in Jack London Square with my dad, sipping a watery Shirley Temple and trying to understand the appeal of music with no words.

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That’s not the case with The Flannels.

The Flannels have goals of playing bigger stages, but for now they’re having fun throwing DIY events like their backyard party on March 25. (Julian Currier)

The Flannels are an ensemble mostly made up of students from Oakland School for the Arts. They’ve played shows at Oakland Style Lab, a creative hub for youth artists in downtown Oakland, as well as in band members’ backyards. Most recently, they made their club debut when they opened for Tatiana & Treetop Band at Amado’s in San Francisco on April 16. These welcoming, everyone’s-invited kinds of events help make jazz less intimidating and more appealing to the entry-level listener.

“It really just felt like a high school party,” says The Flannels’ trumpet player, Iona Kambouridis, about the band’s backyard show on March 25. Not in the sense of a movie-esque rager, she explains, but more like a kickback in the park.

While most folks in attendance seemed to be between 15 and 18 years old, concertgoers ranged in age from preteens to the host’s senior-citizen neighbors who happened to stop by.

The group began playing summer gigs together, and after clicking, they decided to make it official by forming The Flannels. Coming from similar musical backgrounds, each member was introduced to music early in life by passionate parents. Miles Turk, the band’s drummer, recalls falling in love with live music while watching his father, the pianist John Turk, perform.

“I would go with him to gigs,” Turk says. “I would see him do what he do. Seeing someone in their element, for real, they love it.”

Turk acknowledges the importance, too, of having dedicated music teachers and mentors. “Those people that really love you, and put in that effort for you, they believe in you—that’s huge for any kid,” he says.

As for what’s next, the band is looking to expand—both eccentrically and exponentially. Guitarist Vincent Maclauchlan breaks down the group’s goals: “We want to play bigger venues, that’s definitely the goal. You know, just bigger and better things. A backyard is cool, but how about 400 in an established venue?”

But even as the band pursues lofty goals like playing bigger stages and hitting the recording studio, The Flannels are still committed to the kinds of community events that make their performances so fun and free-spirited. “An idea I had was getting together a skate jam, and having a skating competition,” Blackwell says, “as well as selling art and having a music show.”

It’s all in concordance with the Flannels’ unpretentious approach to jazz. After all, the band has a successful track record of turning seemingly fanciful ideas into reality.

As Blackwell puts it, “I’m like, ‘Bro, what if I could throw this crazy party where there are two bands playing, and five artists selling art?’… And then it actually happens.”

The Flannels came up with their band name on a whim, and deny that it holds any profound significance. But their name perfectly encapsulates their do-it-yourself, down-to-earth vibe synonymous with an oversized plaid flannel shirt. And it’s a vibe that is not always associated with jazz music.

The Flannels’ laid-back atmosphere is definitely intentional. “I want to build community with music,” says Blackwell. “And as much as I think the black-tie thing is sort of cool, I think it’s more important to bring a group of people together.”

Presuming the Flannels continue on their upward trend—hosting shows that break triple-digit audience numbers and congregating young artists—then Blackwell may be onto something. In fact, the group’s approachable vibe could lay the foundations for a whole new generation to make its mark on jazz.

Morris Hayes is a student journalist born and raised in Oakland, California. He attends Skyline High School.

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