BWW Interview: Gilbert Castellanos, Trumpeter, Curator of Three Jazz Concert Series, and Founder of The Young Lions Jazz Conservatory
It's a marriage committed to musical excellence. Jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos says of his wife Lorraine, "She's a classically trained guitarist, and her practice can be intimidating at times." That helps motivate him to practice more, usually four or five hours a day. But she has said, his practicing inspires her to practice more because she feels guilty if she doesn't. Fortunately for the couple, and perhaps the neighbors, they both have successful careers that prevent them from escalating into a friendly, but potentially fatal competition.
I got an idea of the extremes a practice competition might go to when Castellanos explained why he no longer teaches at Los Angeles's USC Thornton School of Music. He'd leave San Diego at five in the morning and return at one the next morning. He did that two or three times a week for 12 years before finally deciding--maybe it was taking up too much time?
In an hour conversation by phone I learned how Castellanos came to practice as he does, what jazz means to him, and the training and experience that have led to a highly satisfying career.
He began piano lessons at age five and got his first trumpet at six. The importance of practice was instilled in him by his father. Though himself a multi-instrumentalist and band leader, "He also ran an upholstery business out of his home, so there was no way of me saying, 'Oh yeah, father, while you were at work today I practiced five hours.' He was always there, so I literally had to practice five or six hours a day.
"When I was 11, I played the American and Mexican national anthems as an opening for my father's Afro-Cuban band and got to play in the band at the concert too. My father paid me like a regular, and a light bulb went off. I thought, hey, this is the first time I've had this much money in my hands." After working hard to learn his father's charts, he began to form his own groups. And in 7th grade, "We didn't have a jazz program. I convinced my band director to start one."
His jazz chops developed rapidly. He was just 15 when he performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who became a mentor. "He was extremely encouraging. To this day I still think he was responsible for helping me get a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston." After Berklee, formal training continued at Cal Arts in Los Angeles.
Castellanos first received national attention in his twenties when he recorded three successful albums with a combo called Black/Note. A lot has happened since then. Today he performs often with various groups led by himself or friends, runs a jazz conservatory, curates jazz programs for the San Diego Symphony and the San Diego Museum of Art, leads open-to-all weekly jam-sessions at two venues, and works on UCSD's summer jazz-camp with its founder Dan Atkinson. Castellanos has won the San Diego Music Award for best musician several times, and last year received a "Jazz Hero" award from the Jazz Journalists Association.
Like his practice routine, Castellanos's love for jazz was inspired by his father. "He had a huge LP collection. That's all I listened to when I was a kid." He made cassette recordings of Basie, Clifford Brown, "Fats" Navarro, and many others. Uneasy about sleeping in the dark alone in his own room, he used jazz to ease his fears. "At that stage of my life I would listen to jazz every night on a player under my pillow." The night before my interview he had spent the entire evening at home listening to his own collection of LP jazz classics, surprising friends with a rare 10-inch disc recorded in 1954 by trumpeter Clifford Brown.
Passionate about keeping the jazz tradition he came to love alive, he founded The Young Lions Jazz Conservatory in 2013. There will be 100 students ages 10-18 in the class entering this fall. In addition to running the nonprofit organization, Castellanos is one of its instructors and a mentor to students. He pushes them to take practice as seriously as he does, telling them, "When I was your age, this is how I started out. I had to learn to play the Blues in all 12 keys. When you can do that we'll go to the next stage."
Performance opportunities for students are also a priority. He feels especially good about the Panama 66 sessions at Balboa Park's museum of art. "It's gone beyond my expectations. The young Lions play from six to eight, followed by my jam session from 8:30 to 11:30. The output of support from the community is just incredible. We get over 200 people every week." Students have also performed before the main acts he books for the San Diego Symphony at the Jacobs Music Center and the bayside Embarcadero. Referencing Wynton Marsalis's New York success, he calls, "The combination of Jazz at the Jacobs and the Young Lions Conservatory Lincoln Center West." His dream is to have a permanent performance venue for both the Young Lions and established jazz musicians.
The 2018 Bayside Series summer jazz series is far from over. Go to the San Diego Symphony website for concert schedules. Gilbert Castellanos's is already thinking about 2020.
Photos courtesy San Diego Symphony