After teaching young people to play classical music for 82 years, the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra — one of the oldest youth orchestra programs in the country — is now expanding into jazz.
The new Philadelphia Youth Jazz Orchestra will perform big-band jazz compositions from its golden age: Think Count Basie, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Billy Strayhorn.
“You have your basic rhythm section: guitar, bass guitar, piano, drums. Then you have your saxophones, and then your full-on brass trumpets and trombones,” said PYO President Louis Scaglione. “It’s a big sound once you get it all together. It’s a really neat sound, actually.”
The jazz orchestra is expected to have 17 to 24 players, drawn from the tri-state area. Auditions for students ages 15 to 21 will be held on Sept. 10 and 11. Those accepted will begin rehearsals in September, with concerts expected next spring.
The PYO Jazz Orchestra will be directed and conducted by Justin Faulkner, a drummer with the Branford Marsalis Quartet and faculty member of Temple University’s Boyer College of Music and Dance.
A Philadelphia native, Faulkner grew up playing in the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. Fourteen years ago he was a student of Scaglione’s.
“It is an honor to return home to the PYOMI family where I was educated and trained as a budding young musician,” Faulkner said in a statement. “I look forward to working with our jazz musicians and watching them grow with this excellent new opportunity.”
The Philadelphia Youth Jazz Orchestra will join a roster of other ensembles under the umbrella of the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Music Institution (PYOMI), of which the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra is the core, with about 125 of its most accomplished musicians.
The organization operates a total of nine ensembles, including the Young Artist Orchestra at a slightly lower tier than the main orchestra, the Youth Musicians Debut Orchestra for beginning and intermediate musicians, and smaller groups like Prysm Strings and Bravo Brass, focused on particular instruments.
In addition to the jazz ensemble, earlier this summer the PYOMI launched the new Youth Symphonic Band, with a focus on wind, brass, and percussion instruments — no strings — primarily in the marching band repertoire.
The PYOMI is developing these new programs in pursuit of its goal to have 1000 participating young people in the next five years. Over the organization’s 82 years, it has never had that many musicians in its programs.
“Right before the pandemic, we were cresting the 600-mark,” said Scaglione.
Scaglione said the PYOMI recently completed a strategic plan with the ambition of turning its home of 23 years, at the campus of St. Patrick’s church in Rittenhouse Square, into a “community music hub,” where a wide range of Philadelphia’s musical organizations would have a presence.
“We have an opportunity to expand in our space and create a real hub for community music education,” he said. “Not only organic expansion by adding program divisions, but also by partnering with other music community music education organizations to use this as a central place for teaching music to the youth of our communities.”
Several area music organizations, largely classical, already utilize St. Patrick’s as a performing and rehearsal space. Scaglione said big-band jazz is not too far from classical.
“Jazz has been something that I’ve always had a great interest in,” said Scaglione, whose grandfather was a jazz drummer in Chicago in the 1930s and 40s.
“He was quite an accomplished drummer and survived the Depression that way,” he said. “I grew up listening to all the big band greats, which all called themselves orchestras: the Benny Goodman Orchestra, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Louis Armstrong Orchestra.”
Scaglione hopes expanding into jazz programming will broaden the pool of students interested in performing with PYO.