All That Jazz, and More

Carmichael, CA (MPG)  |  By Jacqueline Fox
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Rio American High School Graduate Duncan McElman, 18, has been selected to join the 2017 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, touring this summer across the nation and Canada before a final performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in fall. -- Photo courtesy of Duncan McElman, by Tiffany Grebitus photography

Local Saxophonist Tapped for Monterey Jazz Festival Student Band

Baritone saxophonist and Carmichael resident, Duncan McElman, a recent graduate from Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, is heading in to his first summer on a very high note as one of 20 student musicians selected to join the Monterey Jazz Festival’s 2017 Next Generation Jazz Orchestra (NGJO).

As a member of the NGJO, McElman, 18, will join the band for a 10-day tour kicking off June 24 with a performance at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Rochester, New York, followed by dates at the Toronto and Montreal International Jazz Festivals, culminating with, oh, just a little gig playing alongside heavy hitters, such as John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton and Gerald Clayton at the 60th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival September 17.

To say McElman is stoked would be an understatement. He spent hours practicing his audition pieces before submitting three recorded submissions to the NGJO selection board, aiming to realize a dream he’s had since first picking up the saxophone as a fifth-grader at Mission Avenue Elementary in Carmichael.

“Getting the word that I’d been selected to play in the NGJO was a real game-changer,” McElman says. “I didn’t think I was going to get in because there are so many other great student musicians out there. When I got the news, I said ‘OK, this really changes everything for the day.’ I immediately called my mom and told her the good news.”

Between February and March, McElman submitted recorded auditions of Charlie Parker’s “Blues For Alice,” and Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” They were good performances, McElman recalls, but in attempting to tape the final audition piece, he realized he was running out of battery on his phone and up against the deadline for the final submission. Shortly afterward, while on tour with the Jazz Band of America in Indianapolis, he managed to pull a group of fellow players together to record his final audition piece: Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” meeting the deadline and, obviously the judges’ expectations.

“I felt like once I got that last piece submitted, everything was gonna be fine,” said McElman, who performed all three auditions on the same vintage Selmer Mark VI baritone sax. “I knew I’d given it my all and I could not have done better.”

High School Musicians from California, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington were selected to join the 2017 NGJO. While this is McElman’s first selection to the band, he is certainly not Rio Americano’s first: The school has a 32-year history of placing student musicians in the band. Duncan is their 59th.

“Duncan comes equipped with a high degree of talent and already has learned and absorbed much of the jazz language in his work,” said Paul Contos, director of the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra and Education Director for the Monterey Jazz Festival. “His playing on the baritone sax is exemplary and embodies the history of the instrument.”

As for Rio Americano, Contos said the school’s music program “has always been one of the superlative models in jazz education” locally and across the country

Josh Murray is Band Director at Rio Americano High. He says McElman simply has a rare talent for, not only the music, but the drive to do the work required for musical greatness.

“Duncan is a rare student,” Murray said. “He combines talent, hard work and passion in a way that few teenagers can manage. He is one of those musicians who can have an audience wrapped around his finger when he plays, and has a bright future ahead of him.”

As baritone chair in Rio’s top big band, McElman has secured soloist awards from the Santa Cruz, Folsom, Reno, Essentially Ellington, and Charles Mingus jazz festivals. In 2015, he was chosen as "best reed player" at the Traditional Jazz Youth Band Festival in Sacramento. Want more? In 2013 and 2014, McElman was selected to be a part of TNT: The New Traditionalists, identified as a “regional honor combo focused on traditional jazz.”

Earlier this year, McElman was selected by his peers as the school’s most valuable player, as well as its most valuable jazz and all-around musician.

He’s fresh out of high school, but already McElman has shared stages with jazz luminaries such as the Mingus Big Band, Wee Trio, Matt Wilson's Christmas Tree-O, Joshua Redman, Mary Stallings and Jeff Lederer.

Practicing nearly three hours daily for years while also keeping up grades didn’t get in the way of giving back. In addition to all those performances, tours and finishing up high school, McElman also managed to take time to teach music and direct jazz combos at Arden Middle School, where some of his students have gone on to win their divisions at the Traditional Jazz Youth Band Festival and receive high scores at the Folsom Jazz Festival.

The summer’s whirlwind tour and festival performances will bookend McElman’s next big adventure: He’s been accepted to attend the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami on a Presidential Scholarship in the fall, where he will major in Jazz and Studio Music.

“It really has been an amazing year,” McElman said.