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Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble Celebrates 20 Years of cultural education

Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble Celebrates 20 Years of cultural education

On Sept. 12, family and friends came together at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco (LJYE): a program that advances social justice and delivers world class jazz performances.

The open-air concert attracted a near-capacity crowd of alumni and current members . Bursts of applause and dancing to the lively Latin rhythms could be heard throughout the downtown cultural square.

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LJYE alumna Cielo Contreras, who sang “Se Me Olvidó Otra Vez” at the concert, said that she feels most alive when she is performing. 

Current LJYE member Ceferino Vergara-Tucker said, “the night before, I couldn’t go to sleep, I was so excited.” 

LJYE offers free, top quality musical education in an inclusive environment for youth ages 10 to 18 of all musical abilities. “We are one of the most diverse musical groups in the Bay Area in terms of demographics of race, ethnicity, and gender,” Music Director John Calloway said.

Members of the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco perform at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on Sept. 12. Photo: Joe Ramos

Known for its professional excellence, LJYE has performed at events and venues throughout the Bay Area, including the San Jose Jazz Festival, Carnaval San Francisco, and Brava Center for the Arts, to name a few. LJYE has also recorded three CDs featuring original student compositions and recorded with stars like Armando Peraza, John Santos, Jerry Gonzalez, Louie Romero, and Jeff Cressman. 

LJYE began as a collaboration between Calloway, Managing Director Arturo Riera, and Communications Director Sylvia Ramirez. They saw a void in the community, and they set out to fill it. “This really is a passion project, and what we see as a community-based solution to a social justice issue,” Riera said.


The issue, Ramirez explains, is that  “In music education, socioeconomics is a big divider, because private lessons, instruments, programs that need parents to transport kids… those kinds of things are difficult for lower income children.”

“It doesn’t mean that the talent pool is not in the lower income community,” Ramirez continues, “but the opportunity and access to programs isn’t. And so what we’re all about is opening access, and bringing down barriers to music education.” 

Riera experienced this gap in opportunity in his own youth. “I swore back then that I’d do something so that a program could exist, that a kid like me, without the resources, could still get into an elite group and still have that pride of ownership,” Riera said. He described the program as world class but not elitist. 

LJYE breaks down socioeconomic barriers by offering free programming in English and Spanish and by providing education instead of just recruiting students who are already trained performers. Calloway books paid gigs in professional venues, which allows the program to remain  free to youth.  

Riera described LJYE as a “bridge…a safe place, a place where [students] can excel…where young children can find their tribe,” he said.

Contreras said she especially resonates with the program’s justice and equity focus as a woman who was brought to the US from Mexico at age four. 

“Institutions, they do value and they do prioritize white people. And I had to live through that.  And this band is something that shows like, we have to appreciate other cultures, we have to take them in, because they’re what make the US stronger. I think LJYE shows not only that the youth can continue on prospering and growing, but minorities can as well,” Contreras said.

Contreras explained how LIYE gave her the cultural education and connection to her heritage that she lacked growing up. 

“My dad says, like, ‘if you don’t know where you came from, then you don’t know where you’re going,’” Contreras said. She hoped people would learn to appreciate art and culture. 

 “The soul needs art in its life. There’s so much more to life than blood and there’s so much more to life than war. There’s art,” Contreras said.

LJYE is dedicated to educating the next generation of musicians. 

Members of the Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble of San Francisco perform at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on Sept. 12. Photo: Joe Ramos

“What motivates us is to keep Latin jazz as an art form going, and what better way to invest in the art form than to teach youth how to play it,” Ramirez said.

Vergara-Tucker, for example, was inspired by the mentorship he received from older students at LJYE. “I’ve just fallen in love with this music, and it’s now like a really big part of me,” he said. 

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Now, Vergara-Tucker mentors students himself, allowing the Latin jazz education to continue.

“I’ve learned that when you find a group of people who do something in common and they want to be there, the sky’s the limit,” Vergara-Tucker said.

Each team member was eager to affirm the other’s unique skills and talents. “John’s a genius in education, and Sylvia’s a great marketer and writer, what I bring to the table is this vision that we are equal to the best in this city, and we deliver,” Riera said. 

Riera was most proud of how LJYE impacted his family. Riera’s son, niece, and nephew were all LJYE members.  

Calloway was proud to see how youth developed over time, from arriving nervous to becoming confident enough to serve in leadership roles. 

Ramirez was proud of how LJYE alumni returned to reunion concerts and shared what the program meant to them. 

Over time, the group has seen changes. Since the No Child Left Behind Act, the school district has struggled to provide music education sequentially, Calloway said. The result is that students often come to the group with less experience than in the early days of LJYE, increasing the need for music education. 

However, there have been positive changes as well, Ramirez said. More girls are playing instruments that boys traditionally played. The ensemble dress-code has changed to be inclusive of gender non-binary students. 

Looking ahead, the team is considering how to forge the next chapter of LJYE and seeking an institutional partner that aligns with the program’s mission. 

As for Ramirez, it was this shared mission that kept the organization running for the past 20 years. “If you have the passion, don’t wait for somebody to create the organization; anyone can do it,” he said. “I believe in the community spirit of ‘just be the solution.’ There was something missing in our community when it came to youth education in music and Latin music, and so we filled it.”

El Tecolote turns 52 this August!