Miami jazz saxophonist David Leon is one of the 2017 recipients of the ASCAP Foundation’s Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award for his work. As part of that award, he will be playing at this year's Newport Jazz Festival.
The 23-year-old Cuban American grew up in Miami, went to the New World School of the Arts and graduated from the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
The award is for early-career jazz composers. Leon’s winning submission was his track “Me vs. Me.”
“By giving up-and-coming composers a chance to have their music heard, [we are] championing the music greats of tomorrow,” said Colleen McDonough, executive director of the ASCAP Foundation. “The ASCAP Foundation is dedicated to nurturing and supporting the next generation of songwriters and composers — people like David Leon.”
Leon spoke with WLRN's Wilson Sayre before he travels up north to play at the Newport Jazz Festival. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WLRN: How did you get into jazz?
LEON: I actually started playing music with the piano, I played classical piano for eight years. When I moved into middle school, I wanted to join the jazz band and they said, “Well, there’s already four piano players in the jazz band. Why don’t you join the legion of 20 saxophones instead?” And so I did. They gave me an option and I said the saxophone is the coolest one; that’s the one I want to play.
WLRN: Jazz band, because that’s where the cool kids were at?
LEON: The cool kids are never in jazz band until later (laughs)
WLRN: Miami has a lot of Latin roots, Caribbean music roots. How does that affect the jazz that you grew up hearing, playing and now, performing?
LEON: A lot of that Latin music that you’re talking about, I definitely grew up hearing it at parties and dancing too and it’s in musical blood or whatever, just because it’s been around for forever. Although I never really made it a point to go out and hear Latin jazz or Latin music necessarily, it’s definitely tinged the sound down here… the music is just really fiery and a lot of the players down here have kind of an edge that people notice and say “that’s the Miami edge” whenever you go somewhere else… I don’t know if it sets me apart, but it’s definitely hard to get away from the Miami thing once you’re in it.
WLRN: What does it mean to be a Miami guy playing at the Newport Jazz Festival?
LEON: I’m so thrilled. This is such an incredibly opportunity. The Newport Jazz Festival is one of the most historic jazz festivals that are around. I mean, I can think about multiple records that I grew up listening to that were recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival. Duke at Newport is this famous recording where everyone is freaking out at this Paul Gonsalves solo. That is amazing.
That’s feet from where I’m going to be. You hear the screaming. It sounds like something happened, you know. That’s the kind of reaction you want from every crowd after you play. I’m going to be there.
David Leon’s favorite places to play in Miami:
The Fish House
Almost six years, I started playing Wednesday nights at The Fish House near Westchester. I brought in my own band and guest artists.
That room has really changed on Wednesday nights to a place where people do sit and listen to the music and people show up knowing that they’re going to listen to music and be engaged.
Le Chat Noir
The other real jazz club, it’s even underground, is La Chat Noir. It’s in downtown Miami and Monday nights there’s an open stage club that the Miami Jazz Cooperative hosts.
There’s a bunch of jams around the city. My favorite is probably Churchill’s. You go anywhere in the world and punk people will say, “Oh, you’re from Miami; do you know Churchill’s?” And that place is kind of a grimy, disgusting place all the time, but that’s what’s so cool about having jazz there. It’s just a totally different vibe from The Fish House, which is very clean and family friendly.