Students Find Their Musical Voice in the Youth Jazz Lab

By Rachel Azbell, Jazz Academy Coordinator


For the past 8 Sundays, 32 students have gathered in the Jazz Academy as part of our Columbus Youth Jazz Lab program. The Lab was created in the Fall of 2014 as a tuition-free component of the CYJ program for 7-12 grade instrumentalists at all experience levels. Unlike a more traditional big band setting, the Lab was designed to develop each student’s musical voice within the context of a jazz combo. It has grown significantly every year, as more and more students and families learn about the Youth Jazz programs. This semester, we had an exciting group of students. They ranged in grades from 7-12 and represented 27 schools across central Ohio. All were excited and ready to become further immersed in jazz.

Professional jazz musicians and teaching artists (Zach Compston, Danny Bauer, Bryan Olsheski and John Allen) each directed their own combo. Each director offered their unique set of skills and experiences to their ensembles. This gave students the opportunity to learn from some of the best jazz musicians in our area through an environment that fostered mentorship, community and creativity.

Throughout this session, there were a few moments that made me realize the incredible impact this program has on its students. At the beginning of rehearsal, everyone met in the same room and learned about the nuances of jazz in a combo setting. They learned essential terminology, such as chorus, head, tag, turnaround, AABA, backgrounds, and intro/endings. Time was also spent on improvisation techniques, which delved into blues and common blues licks. Listening was used as a way to reinforce these ideas. Every week, Zach asked the students what they were listening to in their time away from the Lab and he challenged them to learn a some of it by ear. It was so great to see students offer up different tunes and artists and then play bits and pieces of what they learned by ear. Importantly, not all of these tunes were jazz! A student named Wes chose to listen to and play Waluigi’s Taco Stand, and did so incredibly well. Another student, Ellie, learned to play the groove to Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon on drum set. The full-group sessions equipped students with the vocabulary to communicate both verbal and musical ideas about jazz. There were many breakthroughs on both personal and group levels.

Another important breakthrough in our Lab program has been the addition of vocalists This semester, for the first time, the Lab expanded to include curriculum for beginning jazz vocalists. As a vocalist, I was incredibly excited to see the Lab advance in this unique, important way. Each singer chose songs of their liking to learn and perform. We then spent the next several weeks using these songs as a vehicle for learning and exploring a variety of topics, such as vocal jazz technique, style, and improvisation. Each vocalist discovered their own keys for the songs and had lead sheets made for them in their specific keys. As the weeks went by, the student’s personal interpretation of each song was informed by playlists of professional vocalist’s versions. Mirroring the full-group sessions, I frequently enforced the importance of listening. The vocalists learned the music of jazz greats, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Wilson, Astrud Gilberto, Anita O’Day and several more.

We wrapped up this session of the CYJ Lab on November 11th with a final performance in the Lincoln Ballroom. Each combo performed three pieces and 3 out of the 4 combos featured a vocalist. This performance had the largest audience of any of our Lab performances to date, which is reflective of the growth of the program. I was immensely proud of the students for what they accomplished in such a compact amount of time. Zach shared that while at the beginning of the 8-week program students were very nervous to improvise and solo on their instrument, by the final rehearsal students were providing quality advice and feedback to improve each others’ playing ability. We are very much looking forward to the Spring 2019 session of the Columbus Youth Jazz Lab program, beginning January 6th.

To join us for the next session of Lab, please register here!

All questions about the CYJ Lab can be directed towards Zach Compston, Director of Education and Community Engagement ( or myself, at