Rio Americano High School senior Andrew Stephens was three months shy of his 11th birthday when he blew into a trumpet that was lying around at a birthday party for twin friends and saxophonists Taylor and Emery Mesich.
The sounds he produced were loud and not very pretty, but Stephens was enthralled with the instrument.
He returned the next day for an informal trumpet lesson, launching a musical trajectory that lands Stephens on the main stage of the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sunday as a member of the prestigious Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. This year’s band features 20 high school musicians from 10 states.
“He is one of those people who is built for the trumpet,” Rio Americano band director Josh Murray said of Stephens, 17. “The trumpet is a very unforgiving instrument and most people really struggle with it. While he does work very hard, his physiology is such that it lends itself to playing that instrument. But he also has a natural feel for playing music, specifically for playing jazz. When he plays — and it’s always been this way — it just feels good. He always makes any band better. Wherever he goes, people take notice.”
With encouragement from Murray, Stephens first auditioned for Monterey as a sophomore but was not accepted. In April, he auditioned again, playing “Billie’s Bounce” by Charlie Parker, a Clifford Brown solo that he transcribed by ear and a solo version of the ballad “Easy Living” by Ralph Rainger. This time he made the cut.
The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra convened in New York City on July 3 to prepare for a nine-day tour that included the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Berklee Performance Center in Boston and Jazz Standard in New York City.
Stephens has high praise for his NGJO companions. At their first practice, “they sounded incredible because everyone had learned all their parts and (everyone) was just such an amazing musician that it sounded like being in a professional band,” Stephens said by phone before a recent Sacramento-area gig with the Harley White Jr. Orchestra. “And after a few days, I felt like I was friends with all of them.
“There are a lot of really good musicians in my school, but I’d never been in a band where I felt like every musician is better than you,” Stephens said. “It feels like there is a lot you can learn from every musician in the band. That was really humbling and it was really cool at the same time.”
Stephens said his fellow musicians shared some unexpected common interests.
“I found it interesting that everyone in the band really liked swing,” said Stephens, whose favorite band is the Glenn Miller Orchestra and whose influences include Harry James, Louis Armstrong and Blue Mitchell. “A lot of them played more modern jazz, but the swing charts were everyone’s favorite.”
At Monterey, Grammy-winning saxophonist Joe Lovano is set to perform with the NGJO, “something I can definitely put on my résumé,” Stephens said.
Not that Stephens’ résumé needs much burnishing.
The Sacramento native shifted from plastic recorder to drums to trumpet while in elementary school. At 11, he began playing at the monthly Sunday jams hosted by the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society at the Dante Club.
By 12, he was making annual appearances at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee. He began taking private lessons from experienced performer and music educator Maurice Montgomery, focusing on technique and sight reading. Stephens also studied with noted musician Tom Peron, focusing on improvisation.
Stephens plays in Rio’s AM Jazz Ensemble and is making his fourth consecutive appearance with it at the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sunday, as well. He also plays with the high school’s Minguyz jazz combo.
With the AM Jazz Ensemble, Stephens has played and won soloist awards at the Essentially Ellington Festival, Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival and Folsom Jazz Festival. Stephens said he’s thinking of pursuing an engineering degree at either UC Berkeley or UC Santa Cruz, but plans to keep playing music.
The trumpeter’s ambitions and accolades come as no surprise to Murray, who first met Stephens when he was a middle-schooler attending jazz camp.
“I’ve known him since he was just a little guy and he was really into it,” Murray said. “I mean, he had talent right from the beginning, so it’s been fun to watch him develop all these years.”