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Young Monterey County Musicians Make the Cut for Jazz Festival's Main Stage

The Monterey Jazz Festival, which supports KAZU, is one of the most iconic annual jazz events in the world.  But despite making its home in Monterey, this region rarely produces the young talent who perform during the event in the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra. This year is different.

The group is made up of some of the best high school musicians from all over. This year’s band comes from seven states including California, New York and Texas.  There’s even a saxophonist from Israel.

Earlier this year, 154 students auditioned to be a part of this all-star band. Only 21 made the cut, including two local musicians.  It’s been more than a decade since anyone from Monterey County has got in.

“It takes a certain, I would say, almost like an Olympian style dedication to become a Next Generation Jazz Orchestra member,” says Paul Contos, Director of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra.    That’s also his theory as to why Monterey County musicians haven’t made the cut for so long.

Trumpet player Akili Bradley, from Seaside, is the group’s only female instrumentalist. Her exposure to Jazz started at an early age.

“When I was in my mom’s womb, they were playing Miles Davis. So I’ve always been listening to jazz, and it’s always been a style that I’ve reallyenjoyed because of the creativity involved and creating something new together,” says Bradley.

From there, she says her dad bought her a set of toy percussion instruments.  By age four, she was learning the piano. In the fourth grade, she picked up her first trumpet.   “And by the fifth grade, I decided this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says.

But even for someone as dedicated as Akili Bradley, securing a spot in the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra was no easy feat. This year was her fourth time trying, and her first time making it.

“It’s a huge honor. I’m really excited. So it’s a combination of ‘yay I got in’ and ‘yay, I finally got in,” says Bradley.

Guitarist Isaac de Vera from Monterey also made the cut.  Like Akili, he also showed an interest in jazz at an early age. He began playing piano when he was in second grade, and settled on guitar by the sixth grade.

As part of the NextGen Orchestra, the two toured Japan this summer and also played locally. It all culminates in a mainstage performance at the upcoming Monterey Jazz Festival, opening for Grammy-winning headliners Pat Metheny and Wayne Shorter.

“I mean, I think it’s unbelievable that I get to perform on the same stage as like Miles Davis and like Sonny Rollins,” says de Vera.

“The mainstage is pretty incredible,” says Bradlley. “It’s a huge stage. Lots of People. Lots of excitement, and just to be able to be standing where so many of my influences have stood and played is just pretty incredible.”

And for Paul Contos, inspiring the next generation is what it’s all about.

“To achieve moments where they do that which may seem impossible. And those moments are so precious that it’s just a joy for me to participate with them in that,” says Contos.

The Next Generation Jazz Orchestra kicks off the Monterey Jazz Festival at the Monterey County Fairgrounds with a free concert on the lawn for Monterey County Public Schools.  That’s on Thursday,September 16th.    

They perform throughout the festival and will take the main stage at noon on Sunday, September 18th.   

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