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How L.A. Teens Became Regulars at one of the Great Jazz Showcases

Kayson Capati had never been so nervous when he took his throne. This was the first time the 18-year-old drummer from Eagle Rock High School had ever played the Hollywood Bowl. He knew that the 19 other members of the All City Jazz Band would be depending on his rhythm.

When the band opened with Duke Ellington's jazz standard "Perdido," Capati fell right into the groove that he'd practiced for months. He flashed a bashful smile. By the time electric bass player Nigel Fregozo started plucking “Strasbourg/St. Denis,” the entire band was at ease and swinging to Roy Hargrove's funky bassline. The audience responded enthusiastically and applauded the 20-minute set even after the glowing ensemble left the stage.

This was the eighth consecutive year the All City Jazz Band appeared at the Playboy Jazz Festival. The ensemble, which has shared stages with the greatest names in jazz, is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Beyond the Bell Branch of extended after-school learning programs. The program works with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit educational organization, to bring professional jazz musicians into school band rooms on weekends and evenings.

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The goal of the institute is to expose young musicians to jazz since the genre isn't typically taught in regular school music programs. As a result, many students that audition to be on the All City Jazz Band don't have any jazz background.

"But the students end up becoming big jazz fans when they leave. Some end up graduating with scholarships and aspirations to become professional jazz musicians," said Tony White, the group’s music director. He also sees the music program, and jazz in general, as a social equalizer. White was born to teenage parents in South Central Los Angeles and developed an interest in music at an early age. The eldest of 10 children, he had to create his own musical learning opportunities while growing up. He understands how difficult it can be for students without means to learn music, so he has worked to bridge the gap.

Tony White directs students in preparation for the Playboy Jazz Festival
Tony White directs students in preparation for the Playboy Jazz Festival | Dennis Nishi

The All City Jazz Band members are selected from throughout the school district, so the band reflects the city’s ethnic and socioeconomic diversity. "Inevitably, some talented students are not able to afford decent instruments," said Dr. JB Dyas, vice president of education and curriculum development for the institute and co-director of the program. "Tony White has been a gem because he has relationships with various instrument companies and has been able to get students instruments. Not just good instruments but professional instruments. If it weren't for Tony, none of this would be happening."

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