Ten words suffice to describe Ariel Mejia: Hot horn. Cool head. Swift hands. Old soul, musically speaking.
There’s a lot more to the 18-year-old than that, though. He was grown-up enough to move from Charlotte to Winston-Salem for his last year of high school at UNC School of the Arts.
He knows Spanish and has investigated Greek and Portuguese. Yet his main language this summer and probably for the next six decades will be jazz.
He’s a prized graduate of Jazz Arts Charlotte, a member of UNCSA’s Trumpet Studio, and leader of a small combo that plays gigs in Winston-Salem during the school year.
And this month, he and 21 musicians from across America embark on an Asian tour with National Youth Orchestra Jazz.
They’ll get two weeks of intensive coaching from bandleader/trumpeter Sean Jones, who’ll drill them at the State University of New York at Purchase.
They’ll have a July 27 concert at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium. Then, from July 30 through Aug. 9, they’ll play dates in Taichung City, Taiwan; Beijing; Shanghai; Zhuhai, China; and Hong Kong. The training and travel will all be free.
Backstage with Wynton
To understand how Mejia qualified as one of two Carolinians on the tour — Raleigh bassist Will Hazlehurst is the other — dig this anecdote:
Just before his 15th birthday, he finished second in a competition to sit in with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra during the Charlotte Jazz Festival.
“It was a Gershwin tribute at Knight Theater,” Mejia recalls. “I was backstage when Wynton came in and said, ‘Here’s the set list. What do you want to play on?’ I said, ‘I Got Rhythm.’
“It was pretty nerve-wracking onstage, until it came time to take my solo. Everyone in the band was looking at me. I started to play and suddenly felt, ‘I’m home. This is where I’m supposed to be.’ It was kind of a blur to go from that back to my high school band (at South Mecklenburg), but I knew music was my future.”
He didn’t pick up an instrument until sixth grade, when friends at Waddell Language Academy nagged him to join them in the band. The director handed him a trumpet; by the summer before eighth grade, he was ready for a music camp run by Jazz Arts Charlotte (then Jazz Arts Initiative). JAC co-founder Lonnie Davis recalls the kid who made people sit up:
“We thought, ‘Wow, what a raw talent!’ He was shy and quiet, but it all came out through his horn. He played with maturity. That’s hard, because an eighth-grader is still developing the fundamentals, but he was able to express things beyond his years. His horn was pretty beat up, but he (produced) a beautiful sound.
“He was the only kid in the room who knew what all the notes were by their sounds, what the intervals were, what the chords were. He’s such a hard worker: He’s hungry, like a sponge, and if we told him to check someone out, he’d do his homework. He’s always gone deep into the history of jazz and … incorporated it into his playing.”
‘I love big band music’
You’d expect Mejia to turn to Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Marsalis and other giants of the post-World War II era. Given his Latino heritage — his parents are from El Salvador — perhaps you’d find him listening to Latin-flavored Dizzy Gillespie or Arturo Sandoval. He likes them all. But when he talks about influences, he goes back a century to Bix Beiderbecke and Paul Whiteman.
“I love big band music, not for analysis of the instrumental content but because it’s dance music that sounds good,” he says. “Somebody like Stan Kenton, who had a big band that really swung and was an innovator — I like that.” (Davis thinks his interest in old music dates back to JAC’s two trips to New Orleans, where Mejia and other students went to Louis Armstrong landmarks and sat in to play with pianist Ellis Marsalis, Wynton’s dad.)
Playing among peers
Now, for the first time, Mejia will play among true peers his age. NYO Jazz, a two-year-old program run by Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, follows on the success NYO-USA, a classical music program for players 16 to 19. Candidates send tapes of themselves playing in various styles and genres to a panel of judges. Members of the 18-person jazz orchestra, augmented by a second rhythm section of four, also have to be improvisers.
“We’re looking at people who bring a lot of maturity as musicians but are also a good mix of personalities and strengths,” says Doug Beck, Weill’s director of artist training programs. “We want young people who are representative of this big country, in terms of geography, different-sized communities, etc. We’re also interested in people who will benefit the most. If two students play at the same level, and one has had a ton of chances to tour or study at elite camps, we’d incline toward the person who hasn’t. “
A big part of it is ensemble playing, but it’s still basically one to a part; within a section, (they’re) equals. They play the original professional charts, not intermediate high school band versions, so they are challenged by every song. We create a professional environment and see how quickly they rise to that — and they always do.”
A promising future
To some extent, Mejia already has. He leads the small ensemble Relish Blues in Winston-Salem. (The high school’s mascot is a pickle.) He’s been accepted into UNCSA’s college program, which will prepare him to be the bandleader-arranger-composer he hopes to become.
He also got into Manhattan School of Music but decided to stay closer to his families, both personal and jazz-based. Yet something telling happened at his college audition in New York.
“Musicians talk smack about other people auditioning, and I was keeping my distance from them,” he says. “I went in and played like normal, and when I came out, one said, ‘How are you so nice, yet you play like a 40-year-old man who has already been through two divorces?’ In the jazz world, that’s a compliment!”
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