When Kevin Huang was in middle school, he started attending the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s TD Jazz for Teens program. “There were lots of incredible people there,” he said, “not only the mentoring from the actual teachers but the community of people I got to play with – my fellow peers, who were incredible musicians.” He spent six years in the program.
Huang, a senior at Princeton High School, whose primary instrument is alto saxophone, won a First Place award in this year’s Gerry Mulligan Jazz Challenge, sponsored by the Gerry & Franca Mulligan Foundation. He received $500 for his performance of the Mulligan composition, “42nd and Broadway”, featured on Mulligan’s Grammy Award-winning 1980 DRG Records album, Walk on the Water. According to G&FMF Executive Director Cecelia Toschi, the judges felt Huang “played with enthusiasm, fire, and passion and that his performance was excellent.”
At Princeton High School, Huang is part of the Studio Band, Big Band, Princeton Studio Combo, and Studio Vocals. “The amount of fellow jazz musicians at Princeton,” he said, “is really incredible and playing in a big band setting every day really developed my jazz playing a lot.”
On Saturday, April 22, Princeton competed in Philadelphia’s ‘National Jazz Festival, an event that brings together high school and middle school musicians from across the country for live performances and educational clinics. Huang won a Superior Musician award as part of the Large Ensemble competition and an Outstanding Musician award as part of the Small Ensemble competition.
“Getting recognition for all the music that I played,” he said, “really felt great to me, and I’m thankful that I was able to win those awards. The best part of that competition was really just having a place and a stage to play and express what I feel in front of lots and lots of people.” According to one of the NJF judges, University of the Arts Professor Marc Dicciani, Huang “displayed a very advanced skill set and a musical maturity well beyond his years. It is a rare pleasure to hear this level of technical ability, musicianship, and creativity in such a young player.”
When Huang was at TD Jazz for Teens, guitarist Adam Moezinia showed him a video of alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash and singer/songwriter/mandolinist Sierra Hull, playing “Gold Rush”, a tune composed by legendary bluegrass mandolin player Bill Monroe and his fiddler, Byron Berline. That performance had a lasting impact. “The amount of control and perfect articulation and lines in his (Barbash) playing was just incredible to me. I’m really into Eddie Barbash,” Huang said, “but I actually haven’t heard him live yet.” Barbash is a member of Jon Batiste Stay Human, the house band for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Moezinia remembers seeing Huang “a few years ago, in theory class. I think he wasn’t even in high school yet. I could definitely tell, as many other faculty members could as well, that he had a lot of potential and was on his way to being a great player. Fast forward through Covid. A few years later when I had the chance to hear him, he was dealing with the music on a serious level. It’s great to hear that he’s doing well and winning awards! He deserves it, and I wish him more success in his musical journey.”
Huang is preparing to play this summer in the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra, an all-star big band made up of the best high school and college jazz musicians in the Philadelphia and New Jersey region. It is directed by Joe Bongiovi, Director of the Princeton Studio Band. Huang has also formed a quartet with fellow Princeton High students and hopes to have some local gigs this summer. In the fall, he will be attending the Berklee College of Music on a full tuition scholarship, and his plan is to be a full-time professional jazz musician.
He often thinks back, though, to his first day at TD Jazz for Teens. “I walked in early and heard (saxophonist) Michael Thomas playing patterns, and, at first, I thought he was a student. That’s what made me want to get better. That really gave me this feeling of what I could be.”–SANFORD JOSEPHSON
The Grand Prize winner of Gerry Mulligan’s Challenge was Yegor Noskov of Fairfield, CT. The other First Place winner was Oliver Shifrin of Norwalk, CT. The two Second Place winners were Evan Cerne and Sean McCoy, both of Seattle.