Most folks who watch the Grammys on TV are vaguely aware that it’s put on by an organization with a very long name — The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) — but few people know that the Grammys are just one of the Academy’s programs. NARAS is an advocacy organization that lobbies Congress on behalf of musicians, helps players in need (through MusiCARES) and is also deeply involved in music education.
One of its programs during the week of the telecast is called Grammy Jazz Camp, in which three ensembles — a big band, combo and vocal ensemble — spend a week in Los Angeles playing for various functions (including the gala Nominees Reception and Grammy After-Party) as well as receiving mentoring and valuable professional experience and attending the Grammy Awards ceremony at Staples Center.
This year, 17-year-old Roosevelt High School trumpet player John Otten was selected to play in the big band. Getting in is highly competitive — Otten had applied twice before — but this time, his senior year, he got in.
“It’s been incredible,” said the high school senior Saturday afternoon. “I’m really, really lucky I got this opportunity. It’s been really great to meet such amazing players.”
Otten had already been in Los Angeles eight days and had played a dizzying number of engagements, including a show at the offices of Recording Academy itself.
“I think my favorite gig so far has been when we recorded at Capitol Records,” he said. “The recording session was amazing! It was a treat for us to be in Studio B. Nat Cole’s piano was there.”
Capitol Records is the iconic building in Hollywood shaped like a stack of records. The band recorded tracks for a compilation that will also feature the vocal ensemble and combo.
Saturday, the Grammy Band played at the Nominees Reception at the classic art deco Wilshire Ebell Theatre, with ace alto man Justin DiCioccio conducting. The charts — by Benny Carter, Thad Jones, Duke Ellington and others — were sizzling and, not surprisingly, the level of play was extraordinary. In addition to Otten, players who stood out included trombonist Coleman Hughes, from New Jersey, and alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, from Philadelphia, whose mom came out to hear him at the reception.
Otten said he was blown away by the intensity and quality of two three-hour rehearsals with DiCioccio.
Because he’s played with the Roosevelt band through high school, Otten already knew some of these outstanding young musicians through other programs, such as the Essentially Ellington competition, in New York, which Roosevelt has won three times. In fact, Ellington audition tapes were a subject of conversation on the bandstand, as Roosevelt had just submitted theirs before Otten left for L.A., but other kids in the Grammy Band were looking ahead to making their tape when they got home.
Though he was the only Seattle member of the Grammy band, Otten pointed out he wasn’t the only Seattle trumpeter in town that week: Garfield High School graduate Owuor Arunga was there — playing with Macklemore.
Otten was hoping to meet Arunga Saturday, but probably didn’t, because Macklemore was playing at the most exclusive party in town – record mogul Clive Davis’ famous pre-Grammy party, along with Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and R. Kelly, among others. Maybe they hooked up at the after-party.
Otten is looking to make a career out of music, having applied to jazz schools back east, such as Juilliard, the New School and the New England Conservatory.
His big musical takeaway this week?
“I think the single best way to learn to be better is experience,” he said. “And I feel like just playing with such amazing other musicians, watching how other musicians conduct themselves is a learning experience.”