Renée Yoxon at Café Nostalgica  ©Brett Delmage, 2010
Renée Yoxon at Café Nostalgica ©Brett Delmage, 2010

Not one of them expected it.

When they heard from the National Arts Centre that they were the first jazz recipients of its new My First NAC program, Nathan Cepelinski, Lucas Haneman, and Renée Yoxon were all equally flabbergasted.

"To be honest at first I wasn't sure if it was a prank email or not, because it seemed strange for it to say 'Congratulations, you've won'," Cepelinski said. "I guess I'm not used to winning awards that I didn't apply for." He decided it must be the real thing when he saw it also included playing in a concert.

"I was flabbergasted. That pretty much sums it up. I had no idea it was happening; I didn't even hear about the money that Astral had donated to the NAC as part of the award," Yoxon said. "I didn't even realize it was an award at first, it took more phone calls for me to put it all together."

"It was a very nice surprise for sure, but it caught me off-guard," Haneman said.

Each will receive a $1000 artist prize, with no strings attached, and will also perform in a free showcase concert this Wednesday evening (June 22) in the NAC Studio. The concert is almost sold out.

The program, which is being funded by a seven-year, $2.3 million grant from Astral Media, is also recognizing five young classical musicians this year. Its goal is to identify young Canadian musicians, from across genres, who show exceptional promise – with an emphasis on residents from the National Capital Region.  All musicians who had previously taken  part in NAC training programs were eligible.

Cepelinski (alto saxophone), Haneman (guitar), and Yoxon (vocals) had all participated in the NAC's Manhattan on the Rideau jazz masterclasses over the last six years. These are real-time video-conferences, with major jazz artists from the Manhattan School of Music in New York teaching students in Ottawa.

All three musicians are well-known in Ottawa jazz circles. Cepelinski graduated from Berklee School of Music in Boston a month ago; while he was still in high school in Ottawa, he performed with local jazz groups including the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra, spent two years in the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Youth Summit program, and led his own group playing at the Festival. Haneman, who recently graduated from the music program at Concordia University, also was in the Youth Summit program; he released his debut CD in May, and plays with a wide range of groups in Ottawa and Montreal. Yoxon, who has a B.Sc in physics, is one of the hardest-working jazz musicians in Ottawa with a regular Monday gig at the Mercury Lounge and frequent appearances at other jazz venues; she released her first CD last October. She and Haneman will both bring (separate) groups to the 2011 jazz festival.

At Wednesday's concert, Yoxon will sing the title track from her CD, Let's Call it a Day, in a duet with Haneman. Haneman will also play a solo piece from his CD, and will back up Cepelinski, along with other musicians. "Renée's tune is a beautiful piece, I really love it, and Nathan's is quite an intricate piece of music," Haneman said.

Nathan Cepelinski, at only 17, plays with his quintet in his first appearance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2005. ©Brett Delmage
Nathan Cepelinski, at only 17, plays with his quintet in his first appearance at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2005. ©Brett Delmage

Cepelinski will perform a "high-energy, up-tempo" piece he wrote called Tragic Hero, which he first started working on when he was in Grade 11. "I played with it a lot during the past few years at Berklee and it's one of the compositions that I'm the most proud of. I'm always writing things and changing them over the years. By the time I get a finished product that I'm happy with it's usually a couple years later."

What do you do with $1000?

Yoxon said she knew exactly what she would do with her $1000 cheque: "I'm travelling to New York [City] and spending two months there."

While in New York, she said she hoped to "just practice, to spend a lot of time by myself practicing every day. In Ottawa when you've got a lot of other things on your plate: you're performing and you're teaching and it's hard to always get in the good two, three, four hours of practicing every day.

"I can do two hours now no problem, but I want to spend this time taking it up to four or five, so that I can get to the master level, and I want to go to shows and meet people and take a few lessons with some notable people and jam with people. I'm calling it two things: a research and development trip (so I'm going to go down and see what's up), and also a fact-finding expedition. I want to get some perspective on the jazz scene and other parts of the world."

Cepelinski is planning to move to New York City in the fall to live, and the $1000 could help fund that. It might also contribute to the album he's planning to record "sometime in the next year or so".

Haneman said the $1000 will help restock his bank account after the expense of recording his CD. But he also wants to spend some of it on gear he could use for home recording. "If you're a musician there's never a shortage of things to buy, right? I'm guilty of that, that's for sure. I'm a bit of a gear hoarder, I think. That's OK, right? That's what I tell myself, anyways."

What they learned from Manhattan on the Rideau

Cepelinski said the four Manhattan masterclasses he took part in, starting when he was in Grade 10, were "all great". "The whole notion of having a clinic where one guy's in New York and the students are in Ottawa was totally an innovative idea. It was really cool because it gave us the opportunity to study and to learn from some of the world's best jazz educators.

"Dave Liebman is definitely in my opinion one of the top few jazz educators around the world today. It was definitely great just to hear some feedback from him about my playing. I was young, I was definitely a lot less mature musically and I didn't have nearly as much knowledge as I do now I think but it was still great just to learn a few things, just to pick up a few tidbits from Dave Liebman and also from Bob Mintzer and those other guys [...] just to steer me in the right direction."

Lucas Haneman at Café Nostalgica, Dec. 2010. ©Brett Delmage, 2010
Lucas Haneman at Café Nostalgica, Dec. 2010. ©Brett Delmage, 2010

Haneman did two masterclasses, the first as a solo guitarist in 2004, and then with an ensemble including Cepelinski in 2006. He said they were really beneficial and encouraging: "At that time I hadn't really heard too much from people in the industry so it was nice to get that feedback, positive and constructive criticism."

Yoxon's masterclass was with vocalist Theo Bleckmann in February 2010. "I got some perspective on what it takes to really be great as a singer, because Theo has spent So Much Time with the craft. I took a lesson with him after the fact in New York in October, and it made me feel quite small – in a good way. In Ottawa you can suffer from being a big fish in a small pond, which is great if you're trying to foster a career but not so good if you want to become good at something. It's really good to have your ass handed to you occasionally."

"The program allowed me to meet wonderful people, and it also really shook things up in terms of performance. As a person who does a lot of pickup gigs and background gigs, you can get into a routine where you don't take it seriously and you might not get the opportunity to do these feature shows. I can count on one hand the number of shows I've done where people had to sit and buy a ticket and listen to me.

"It's a really nice opportunity to be not only watched by people but highly scrutinized by one person in particular in a performance setting – which is different from taking a vocal lesson where you might not be on your top performance game, whereas, in the Manhattan on the Rideau especially, someone got to see what you really do on the stage, which is totally unique. I really like the program."

Future plans

Over the next few years, Cepelinski wants to diversify his musical career: "not getting away from jazz but getting into some other stuff, adding things to my bag and opening up other career avenues. I got into film scoring – writing music for movies and television and orchestrating, and also jingle-writing, commercial-writing, stuff like that that I really studied at Berklee. Wherever I live next year – and hopefully it will be New York – I'm going to be trying to build connections in all those other industries that I've been studying for the past couple years and hopefully trying to get some nice work.

"Also for jazz, of course. Playing saxophone will always be my main musical passion and pursuit. So I'll definitely be taking a lot of time to practice and address a lot of the stuff. There were so many things that I've learned in the past few years at Berklee just from being in that environment with a lot of the best students and educators around. There were things I was able to learn that I never really had time to practice or to integrate into my playing. There's a lot of things that I know now that I just need time to practice and I'm going to let them sink into my playing. It's been very, very hectic and especially for me since I got involved with the double major with performance and film scoring. A lot of times I didn't have nearly enough time to practice as I would have wanted to. So now it's going to be great I think for the next year or so to have a lot of time to really get down and try to integrate a lot of stuff I've been learning into my playing and at the same time try to get work and network as a player and also as a composer in all these other fields that I've been working on."

Yoxon's emphasis will be on practice: "I have a good idea of what I need to do right now. I have enough books and I've taken enough lessons to know it's not about what anyone is going to teach me at this point; it's really about the time spent in the woodshed. It's just hours logged with the instrument. So that's what I'm up to."

The grant from Astral is part of a Canadian Content Development funding package associated with the launch of Astral's EZ Rock 99.7 radio station in Ottawa. The grant will also help fund masterclasses like Manhattan on the Rideau, young artist showcases, the Summer Music Institute, and the Institute for Orchestral Studies, as well as My First NAC.

     – Alayne McGregor