Nico Sarbanes’ parents planted musical seeds early in his life, perhaps paving the way for him to become a jazz trumpeter.
“Jazz was the first music I heard when I was growing up,” he said. “My parents were playing Sinatra and Tony Bennett for me when I was a kid.”
Sarbanes, the son of Dina and Congressman John Sarbanes, recently had his work showcased at the Baltimore Jazz Alliance’s composer showcase, one of four competition winners and the only student-musician featured. Three original pieces were submitted anonymously to a panel of judges that included renowned Baltimore musicians, who evaluated the pieces based on harmony, structure, creativity and originality.
“They decided [Nico’s songs] had a strong melodic content, and he’s well versed in harmonies,” said Mark Osteen, president of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance.
The four winners of the contest were commissioned to write new pieces to be performed by the BJA Quintet, thanks to a grant from the Baltimore Community Foundation’s William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund. Six other entrants also had their pieces performed. Another grant from Loyola University’s Center for the Humanities paid for the event, which was held on Sept. 29, as well as for the musicians and publicity.
Sarbanes, 20, a junior studying jazz trumpet at McGill University in Montreal, took a 16-hour train ride back to Baltimore to hear his piece performed. Because of the commute, he wasn’t able to rehearse with the BJA Quintet as the other composers were.
“I was actually hearing it performed for the first time, along with everyone in the audience,” he said. “It was a cool experience.”
His father, Congressman John Sarbanes, and his grandfather, former Senator Paul Sarbanes, attended the performance.
“He’s put a lot of work into this, both in terms of his performance … but also now in composing, which is nice because he’s bringing his own creative input to this pursuit of music,” Congressman Sarbanes said. “It’s satisfying, I know, for him to see that that’s getting some recognition.”
Musical talent goes way back in the family. Nico’s great-grandfather, Leon Schwartz, was a renowned Klezmer violin player.
“That music gene definitely found its way to my three kids,” Congressman Sarbanes said, noting that his daughter, Stephanie, was an accomplished cellist in high school, and his younger son, Leo, currently plays the oboe in the Baltimore Symphony Youth Orchestra and was in Maryland’s All-State Band.
Nico’s mother, Dina Sarbanes, said he would sing everywhere as a kid, recalling a time when he broke into an opera song in the middle of Strapazza in Pikesville. After playing in summer music programs and in various musical capacities in school, Nico had has his sights set on music schools.
“He said those words that every Jewish mother wants to hear, “I’m going go to college and become a jazz musician,” Dina Sarbanes joked.
The family has been highly supportive, Nico said.
“I know what a risk it is for a parent to invest money in their kid going to music school because it’s a fickle career path,” he said.
Although he sees a lot of parallels between jazz and Klezmer, and Eastern European Ashkenazi music, he focuses more on hard bop. The jazz subgenre incorporates blues, gospel and R&B into its sound. Artists such as Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, the Adderley brothers and other artists on Blue Note Records piqued his interested in hard bop, which attracted him because of its intellectual approach with soulful sounds.
“The biggest thing for me when I’m composing is that there has to be some sort of emotional connection,” Nico said. “I feel like there’s too many musicians now in jazz who place too much emphasis on the intellectual part of their writing. … You can balance them.”
The piece he composed for the BJA showcase was called “Clifford The Big Brown Dog,” a tribute to jazz trumpeter Clifford Brown.
While Nico may not be following in the public service footsteps of his father and grandfather, Dina Sarbanes hopes he finds a way to improve the community in other ways.
“You can make a difference in the community through music. You can promote arts education, bring music to underprivileged kids,” she said. “I hope he will continue the tradition of giving back and serving the public; it just may be in a different way.”
For now, Nico is enjoying the lack of creative limitations in jazz.
“I like the freedom jazz allows you,” he said. “When you’re not concerning yourself with mistakes so much, it’s a lot easier to express yourself.”
Marc Shapiro is a JT staff reporter – firstname.lastname@example.org