When Alvaro Caravaca was three or four years old, he played classical pieces he heard on the demo for his piano. “I didn’t even know what the word transcription was,” he said, “but I’d been doing it.” Then, “I was just playing random music and, somewhere, somehow, I heard the album, Time Out, by Dave Brubeck,” and that introduced him to jazz.
Caravaca, currently a senior at Mount Olive High School, began playing the trumpet, in addition to piano, in the fourth grade. “I was supposed to play trombone,” he said. “My grandmother really wanted me to play trombone. The way it worked was all the students got together in the elementary school cafeteria, and they had a bunch of professional musicians come in, each really, really good at their specific instrument. I was seated in the very front, and there was this one trumpet player, and he kept looking at me. Then, he came up to me and asked, ‘Would you like to hold this instrument?’ I picked it up and started clicking the buttons. This was really cool. It was really fun to press the valves. So, I picked the trumpet instead.”
In middle school, two teachers – Middle School Band Directors Melany McQueeny and Kenneth Adessa – “introduced me to other forms of jazz.” When Caravaca was in eighth grade, McQueeny, who is now Department Chair for Music, nominated him for the Music Student of the Month program at Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center, and he was named Mayo’s Outstanding Jazz Musician in December 2018. “She’s always been supportive of me,” he said. “She found this opportunity at MPAC, and she ended up putting my name in, and, lo and behold, I got chosen. That entailed a performance at MPAC, and then I got to meet (saxophonist) Dave Koz, and then I got a little band together.”
“Alvaro,” McQueeny said, “impressed me with his talent and work ethic at a young age. He was involved in as many programs as he could be when it came to music. When I introduced the concept of improvisation in the middle school jazz band, I asked if anyone was willing to give it a try. Without hesitation, Alvaro, then in the sixth grade, raised his hand and said with a smile, ‘I’ll try.’ The natural ability he showed with such an advanced skill left a lasting impression on me to this day.”
Adessa gave Caravaca “access to great music, great recordings, and great jazz artists. Recognizing his deep love and his expression in the jazz art form prompted me to get Alvaro involved with (educator/saxophonist) Julius Tolentino, first at Jazz House Kids and then at NJYS (New Jersey Youth Symphony) Jazz.” Tolentino “could hear early on in Alvaro’s sound and playing that he had a special connection with music. Like all of my students, I point them in the direction of learning jazz music as a language.”
Last November, Caravaca had an opportunity to play with Wynton Marsalis, who was giving a brass master class at the beginning of a three-day residency at Montclair State’s John J. Cali School of Music. “I didn’t even know about this until about a week before,” Caravaca said. “I just remember (tenor saxophonist) Mike Lee and Helen Cha-Pyo (Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts) saying, ‘You’re going to play with someone.’ So, I thought ‘If I’m going to do something hard, I should pick something difficult.’” He chose Benny Golson’s “Stablemates”, and he traded fours with Marsalis, who told him, “I love what you did. That was unbelievably soulful.”
The 17-year-old Caravaca plans to pursue a career in music and is thinking about applying to the Manhattan School of Music where trumpeter Ingrid Jensen was recently named Jazz Dean (See interview with Jensen on page?). “I just remember taking a master class with Ingrid Jensen,” he said. “She inspired me so much, so I really want to learn from her.” He added that he will also apply to some other schools around the New York area.
This past spring, Caravaca was part of the Jazz House Kids Big Band that was a finalist in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition. “My first experience with that,” he said, “was being put in a room where they mixed up all the bands together for a dinner. I remember sitting next to a trumpet player, Nathaniel Williford (Williford is a junior at Osceola County School for the Arts in Kissimmee, FL). “Man, let me tell you, he was the most humble guy I ever met. I could not even tell he was going to be one of the greatest trumpet players I heard at my age.
“There’s a certain vibe to every person who gets into a competition like this,” he continued. “Hard work, optimism, and leadership. All those things encapsulated in every single person invariably lifts you. It was really inspiring.”
The Coordinator of the Big Band program at Jazz House Kids is trumpeter Nathan Eklund, who Caravaca describes as “my rock. I met him through Mr. T (Tolentino). From Julius Tolentino to Nathan Eklund to Mike Lee. He’s going to get me the proper things that I need to get me where I need to go. He’s leading me to the doors, providing me with the necessary tools to walk through them.”
Eklund describes Caravaca as “one of those students who, at an early age, has embodied the language and culture of jazz. He’s hungry to learn, and his work ethic keeps him steadily processing. As an educator, these are the types of students you want to work with, as they are willing to put in the hard work. Your job is just to keep directing them where they want to go. I see an incredibly bright future ahead for Alvaro and feel lucky to be part of the journey!”
At the New Jersey Jazz Society’s Jersey Jazz Live! concert on August 28 at the Madison Community Arts Center, Caravaca led the opening act, which included alto saxophonist Ginger Meyer, bassist Sam Konin, and drummer Mecadon McCune. As they played modern jazz tunes such as Charles Mingus’ “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”, Thelonius Monk’s “Ruby My Dear”, and Tadd Dameron’s “Ladybird”, it was clear that the future of jazz is in good hands. “I try to immerse myself with all forms of the music at all times,” Caravaca added. “I don’t have a favorite genre.”
And, he is grateful to his family for supporting him and exposing him to music at an early age. “My dad played guitar,” he said, “but he’s a scientist, and my mom was a teacher for the longest time. I remember there was always Latin music playing in the background for my mom, and my dad always loved to play rock music.” -SANFORD JOSEPHSON
PHOTO BY MITCHELL SEIDEL