Tampa Bay’s young jazz musicians are wise beyond their years

The Music Issue 2019: The kids are alright.

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge Meghan Lock, a 16-year-old drummer who is spending part of her summer in New York for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Summer Jazz Academy. - Jaimie Lock
Jaimie Lock
Meghan Lock, a 16-year-old drummer who is spending part of her summer in New York for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Summer Jazz Academy.

In last year’s Music Issue, CL explored the motivations of 30 of Tampa Bay’s most interesting musicians under the age of 30.

Three of them fell directly into the jazz category. Saxophonist Kyle Schroder was inspired to jump headfirst into his instrument after seeing another Bay area export, Eric Darius, play a festival stage. Drummer Natalie Depergola, of Garden Club, learned under a trio of revered timekeepers including Vinny Appice (Dio, Black Sabbath), Grammy-nominated gospel composer Brent Easton and the late John Blackwell. Depergola even occasionally gigged on a vintage kit that supposedly belonged to hard-bop jazz guru Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers were an incubator for young talent like Branford Marsalis, Wayne Shorter and Chuck Mangione. The third, trumpeter and Gibbs High School graduate Jason Charos, told us that “Jazz is all about freedom, but it is not anarchy. It is the pursuit of a perfect equilibrium of expression between the musicians… it challenges me to be myself and tell the truth of who I am.”

He was 19 years old at the time.

In the months since, all three have played gigs where their ambition could shine. Charos did it most recently at St. Petersburg’s [email protected], where he — along with exceptional young saxophonists Kendric McAllister and David Mason, plus jazz vets Joe Porter and John Jenkins — worked through two sets of tunes composed by Coltrane, Mingus, Water Davis Jr., Booker Little and even Charos himself. Schroder continues turning in spotless gigs at venues like the Hard Rock Casino, and Depergola continues to test how close her band can get to bringing straight-ahead jazz drum patterns to its hybrid style of soul and funk.

And it turns out that the bumper crop of new jazz musicians keeps getting younger and younger.

CL couldn’t get a hold of Meghan Lock after she replied to our Tampa Bay jazz questionnaire, but it was probably because she’s dialed into a summer intensive at Skidmore College in New York. The 16-year-old drummer is motivated by her “drumspiration” Mark Feinman (of Tampa Bay’s own La Lucha) and has already participated in Telluride Jazz Festival’s flagship educational scholarship program, the Dave Brubeck summer jazz colony and the Berklee Jazz Institute Workshop at the Newport Jazz Festival.

After CL went to print with this issue, Lock, who is homeschooled, checked in from New York where she’s taking part in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Summer Jazz Academy. Outside of music, Lock is an anti-risk-taker. If there’s an unknown variable involved, she’s out. No roller coasters, new adventures or anything outside of her day-to-day. A select few friends is as much social interaction she’ll partake in.

Jazz, however, is another story. For Lock, it’s the sound of freedom and creativity. She borrows from saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter in explaining that jazz says, “I dare you.”

“I have to be completely present and engaged to get to the ‘flow,’” she said. She has to trust and connect with other musicians on stage. Often, they are complete strangers. Lock must dare herself to move forward in spontaneous, creative improvisation. In short, there’s no control to be had. It’s something she has to work on every day.

“I have to release myself to the art... every tune is a refreshing challenge. Sometimes I feel like I didn’t meet the challenge and sometimes I feel like I kill it, she said. “Either way, I’m always left wondering when I can do it again.”

click to enlarge Erik Hempel, an 18-year-old Lakewood High graduate who is headed to Purchase College in a year. - Jayne Drooger
Jayne Drooger
Erik Hempel, an 18-year-old Lakewood High graduate who is headed to Purchase College in a year.

Another young musician who’s experienced Lock’s talent firsthand is Erik Hempel, who recently tapped Lock to be part of the Tampa Bay Jazz All Stars big band featuring the best high school and college players from as far north as Pasco and as far south as Sarasota. The 18-year-old bassist just graduated from Lakewood High School and will head to Purchase College in New York after taking a year to save up money while gigging at home.

“There are a lot of stereotypes about bass players in bands. Like, you put the worst person on bass, but that doesn’t have to be the case,” Hempel said, laughing. “When you play the lowest note, you have the most authority over how a chord sounds. Drummers have control over the style, but bass also has rhythm, so there’s an incredible amount of responsibility.”

When it comes to his showmanship and the way he plays his oversized instrument, Hempel’s philosophy sounds a lot like Gumbi Ortiz’s.

“As a player you should really be trying to convey the emotion that you’re feeling, and if you’re having a good time, then the audience will,” Hempel said. Yes, he’s responsible for a performance’s harmonic structure and its rhythm, but Hempel’s job is to also look alive. “I should be supporting my bandmates through the music but also as a human being.”

According to Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association president J.J. Pattishall, Hempel hustles off the stage, too. The association sponsored Hempel’s all-star big band show because, let’s face it: 18-year-olds usually don’t have the money to rent out a venue like St. Petersburg College’s auditorium (it’s the same room Chick Corea made a live concert recording in last January). Pattishall said that stroking the check was all the association really had to do; Hempel did all the legwork of promoting, practicing and getting bodies into the building.

“The big band show gave me a deep and great appreciation for this duality about being a musician,” Hempel said. For him, practice is obviously a must since no one will hire you if you don’t practice the right way, but there’s also a deep enjoyment in toughening up his hands and then making sure that he’s balancing the business side of things.

“It’s interesting to find the balance,” Hempel said. “How do I practice, network and do the business without it being too overwhelming?”We don’t know, Erik, but it seems like you and the talented young musicians in your circle are well on your way to figuring it out.

Follow @cl_music on Twitter to get the most up-to-date music news, concert announcements and local tunes. Subscribe to our newsletter, too.

About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
Scroll to read more Local Music articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.