SAMOHI — As the visual and performing arts coordinator and jazz band director, Tom Whaley has had the pleasure of mentoring many talented musicians, but one stands out from the rest.
“He’s a monster player, the most talented kid I’ve taught in 20 years,” Whaley said.
The “monster” he’s referring to is Santa Monica High School senior Steven Gordon, an 18-year-old prodigy who is a semi-finalist for the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Awards and has been selected to play piano in the Grammy High School Jazz Band, which is comprised of the 20 most talented high school jazz musicians in the nation.
“It’s pretty mind blowing to hear him play,” Whaley said. “The kids [in music programs at Samohi] all respect and admire him. He’s a good kid who has had the chance to play with some of the best jazz legends in the world. I’m really proud of him.”
The Daily Press had a chance to speak with Gordon this week about his career in music, the honor of playing in the Grammy Jazz Band and where the Sunset Park resident plans to take his career.
Q: What do you think sparked your interest in music?
A: For as long as I can remember, my parents always took me to music performances, from classical orchestras and jazz trios, to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. I was particularly drawn to the piano because of its immense sound, and the ability of the instrument to play such a wide variety of styles.
My parents saw my interest for the music, and when I was 6 they gladly enrolled me in private classical piano lessons. Then, when I was 12, my dad played me some recordings of the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, and I soon began improvising and developing my skills as a jazz musician. Music, including jazz, is such a fantastic medium of expression. It pushes me to discover and create, two qualities I believe particularly important.
My parents never pushed me to practice, and because of this I think I came to love playing. Sometimes I do not feel like playing, and will go many days without playing music. But, I always find myself singing a melody, hearing sounds in my head.
I practice so I can play with others. Music is about people, and the connections you form while performing. I love to perform. It’s exciting playing for a crowd, energizing a group of people. It’s a rush I’ve yet to experience from anything else.
Q: How does it feel to be selected for the Grammy band and the Spotlight Awards?
I feel very honored to have been selected … and am very thankful to Tom Whaley … for having been a mentor to me here at Samohi. As director of the Samohi jazz band and combo that I play in, he has provided me with opportunities of going to visit the Grammy high school band at USC two years ago and to jazz festivals throughout the state, and will be taking the Samohi Jazz Band to compete in the Berklee College of Music in Boston’s high school jazz festival in March. He has encouraged me to broaden my musical experiences from the local, to the state, to now the national level.
Q: What’s on your iPod?
A: As far as jazz, I listen to a lot of the greats that have been around like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. As far as newer artists, I like Jamie Cullum, I like a lot of classic rock and some pop songs. I like a wide range of music really.
Q: With budget cuts looming, there has been a lot of talk about saving music programs that are in jeopardy. What has the music program at Samohi done for you?
A: Music allows anyone to get in touch with each other, get in touch with the world and help others in a way that other mediums of expression can’t. It’s critical that music be taught in schools. Without the music teachers I’ve had in the [Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District] and the programs, I would not be where I am today and not be as excited about living life.
Q: What are some of your other interests?
A: Though music is very significant to me, it’s only one part of my life. I love doing yoga, running, and just relaxing with friends. It is extremely important for an individual to be balanced. Swimming down at the beach, going on hikes, and just spending time around people inspire me to play and write music.
A passion of mine is travel and meeting new people. My parents have always made time and saved funds for us to travel, and I am very grateful to them for this. Traveling — and music — reminds me to take chances and enjoy adventure.
I’ve also become very involved with Human Rights Watch. That’s really been rewarding and I have been able to put on a couple of benefit concerts and bring some attention to the issue of child soldiers and problems in the juvenile justice system in California. As co-president of the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force at Samohi, I’ve been able to make some connections and use my music to help reach people. It’s exciting to see these two areas that I’m really interested in join up. Someday I would like to open a nonprofit or something related to bringing those two worlds together.
As for my future, I’m just excited about meeting new people, hearing new music, and using music to influence the world we live in. I’m not sure whether a music conservatory or a regular university is where I’ll end up for college, but either way I will hope to be somewhere where I can join my passion for music and human rights work.
Gordon and the Samohi Jazz Band will be playing tonight, Jan. 10, at 7 p.m. at Barnum Hall with world renowned trumpet player Wayne Bergeron.