BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — When the musicians in the up-and-coming Neighborhood Studios Conservatory Jazz Ensemble take the stage, their musical maturity goes way beyond their tender years.
In fact, the members of the quartet — all from Bridgeport — are just 14 and 15 years old.
The quartet recently entertained diners at Pearl restaurant in Westport with an evening of jazz, performing a variety of classic numbers, including "Afro Blue" by Mongo Santamaría and a few pieces by Miles Davis.
The student musicians come to the ensemble with a background in music and take lessons or practice outside the organization, Executive Director Frank Derico said, adding that a majority plan to pursue music majors in college.
Students get lessons and performance opportunities from seasoned musicians, including a Grammy winner.
Funding comes mainly from the Perrin Family Foundation, Derico told Daily Voice in an interview.
"One of the important things that have come from the relationship between Neighborhood Ensemble and the Perrin Family Foundation is that they introduced the idea to listen to what the teens are saying; what direction they want to go. It doesn't matter how cool it is, what we offer ... it’s not cool enough if you're not listening to what they (the teens) say."
With that in mind, Derico and the Neighborhood Ensemble staff get to know the musicians and have conversations with them on a regular basis.
"We talk about what the issues are that affect our community. So, for instance, last year, police brutality and racism were the issues. We look at how the music (they play) can respond to that. We're still looking into music that can tell that story,” said Derico.
While the main purpose of the program is to prepare local youth to study music outside of school and perform professionally, it is also to prepare them for what life has in store.
“We try to prepare them for the real world. They’re in charge of their own rehearsals and pick their own songs. Through that they learn leadership and organization,” Derico said.
Students excel in an array of genres, but jazz remains a stepping stone, he said.
"They understand jazz is a basis for a lot of popular music that they want to learn. So our guitarist really wants to be a rock guy but he understands the value of it. And our drummer has two older siblings that were part of the program. He kind of gets jazz and listens to it a lot."
Another central component to belonging to the jazz group is how it provides a space for city youth to fit in, Derico said.
"What we have found is we tend to attract kids that don't necessarily fit in anywhere else. Often times we are a safe place for kids that don't do well in other areas in school. For instance, they may do well in art class or music class. We talk of our real world experience and how being a musician is being successful."
Click here to learn more about the Neighborhood Ensemble.