Duke Ellington is just one of the many jazz musicians whose influence causes C.J. Howard to pick up his saxophone. / photo by German Jimenez

Duke Ellington is just one of the many jazz musicians whose influence causes C.J. Howard to pick up his saxophone. / photo by German Jimenez

by Amby Sarabia
photography by German Jimenez

Mozart, Beethoven, Gould, Muller, Stravinsky and Brahms are just a few of his favorite composers. Clarinet, saxophone and piano are the instruments he has mastered. Chemistry, advanced placement history and Spanish 3 are the classes he is taking in order to graduate. “I have all those on top of my arts classes,“ he says as he leans back in his chair. “I have long days.” Indeed, his days last longer than other 16 year olds since he has made the move to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, a magnet school for art enthusiasts. Chester James Howard, known as C.J., is used to the routine of waking up at 5:30 each morning and rushing to the Claremont Train Station where he takes the Metrolink bound for the campus of California State University Los Angeles. After the 30 minute commute, his day is filled with academic and arts classes, all taught at a college level. “By the time lunch comes around, I’m a zombie,” he admits.

Somehow, the ambitious teenager has managed to keep up with studies and his love for music, which started during a fourth grade music assembly where the sound of the clarinet lured him to the fine arts. “I asked my parents if I could play it,” he says as he pushes his hair from his eyes. “I was kind of intrigued by it.” The song that lured him in? The theme song from Star Wars. “Yeah, but that was eons ago,” he says with a smile.

There is no questioning his talent and determination to perfect his sound as the lanky red head gushes about the many musicians and composers who inspire him. Determined to help others understand what he is explaining, he rushes over to the piano, which sits in the center of the room. The top of his head and rim of his glasses are all that can be seen as his fingers roll off multiple songs from multiple composers. He then scampers over to his clarinet where he demonstrates his musical reed ability. With closed eyes, he begins to play. “Saint Saens Clarinet Concerto is a piece I really like playing,” he says after he pulls the instrument from his lips.

“Playing is a hard feeling to describe,” he says. Thoughtful about anything which comes from his mouth, he leans back and constructs the perfect explanation, “It’s a serious tingly feeling; it’s crazy.” Those feelings drove him to seek music lessons in the fourth grade from Don Blasick, a “monstrous” man whose size and demeanor almost caused C.J. to run and never return to practice.“It was a real freakish situation,” he says. “He was huge when compared to a fourth grader.” Practicing his pieces on his free time, he eventually performed his first full piece titled, “Hot Cross Buns”— not one of his favorites but a start nonetheless. His first major piece was Mozart’s “Clarinet Concerto,” a piece he is currently perfecting. “There are so many different levels to it,” he says. “There are the finger aspects and basic dynamics, and as you get more advanced and talk about really deep interpretation, it gets more complicated.”

Complicated pieces are nothing C.J. shies away from as the self proclaimed perfectionist aims to master each piece he sets his eyes on. “You kind of have to be a perfectionist as you get more advanced,” he explains. “You can’t let anything fly; any mistake is bad.”

“C.J. is very diligent,” Jason Goldman, professor of jazz band at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, says. “If he stumbles, he goes home and perfects it so it doesn’t happen again.”

His art classes are bound to solve his problems as he receives an average of 23 hours a week practicing his craft. On his complicated schedule, of which his mom keeps track, he has something going on every day of the week. “It can get pretty hectic around here,” Karen Howard says. “They keep me busy.”

Aside from his regular classes, he is also enrolled in music theory, orchestra, chamber winds ensemble and perhaps his most influential classes—jazz band and music theory. “Jazz band is my funnest class,” he says. “I actually played center saxophone during seventh and eighth grade… I really liked the idea.

His sound on the saxophone has progressed since his days at La Verne’s Ramona Middle School where his music teacher talked him into learning the sax. He now knows how to play alto saxophone, tenor saxophone and bass saxophone. “It was a good thing, but getting down to it, it was basically lack of options,” he explains. “C.J. has worked hard for his abilities,” Goldman says. “He had never played jazz before, and he sat down and learned tenor saxophone.” After a year, his sound reflects that of a competent improv player, he says.

Many musicians stick to a specific instrument, and while clarinet is C.J.’s prime choice, there have been instances in which he has played every instrument in the orchestra.“He’s fiddled around with everything,” says Dallas Howard, C.J.’s younger brother, who is shadowing in his footsteps, playing trumpet. “I like the idea that I can get the basic idea of how it’s supposed to work,” C.J. explains. “I mean it’s not like I’ll ever be very good at it, but I like the experience.”

Talented yet modest, C.J. uses his free time to practice his music at home as well as in other ensembles. “Many people as talented as C.J. sometimes believe they’re too good or busy to play with a group, but he’s not like that,” Tom Mazur, conductor for the Youth Symphony West in Pasadena says. “He’s generous with his talent.”

The young musician spreads himself around as he spends Saturdays with the ensemble in Pasadena where he serves as principal clarinet, conducts and plays at the Claremont Youth Symphony Orchestra during the week, while participating in school related productions. “My schedule can be pretty insane,” he says. Unlike typical teenagers who skip class, hang out after school and go to football games, C.J. splits his time between practice, video games and creating home movies. “I do try to get the Simpsons in,” he says.

Despite his hectic schedule, he does not complain about it. “I’m doing something I love to do,” he says.

When he does have down time, he spends it doing what others his age are doing—playing video games, watching movies, making movies with his friends, and downloading music onto his already full iTunes file, which is filled with classical music. Oh, and he is on the lookout for the ladies, he confesses with a devilish grin.

Mature for his age, his room resembles that of a typical teenager. His bed remains untouched, dumbbells rest in the corner, action DVDs line his shelf, and books remain untouched on his book shelf. A quick scan of his books reveals that C.J. has priorities others his age may not. Books on composers fill the shelves; he looks to them for entertainment and influence. He rattles off a few of his favorites: Ricardo Bote, Stanley Druker and Cynthia Myer. But at the end, he says he looks up to his professors. “My teachers are my biggest influences,” he says. “All of them are trying to teach you how to be musicians.”

“Music is always on his mind,” Goldman says. “He will be in some of the best orchestras in the world.”

Composing his future, C.J. has started to polish his sound for his college auditions. He plans to apply to Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, a music conservatory. With his goal of becoming a composer and conductor, while also performing with big name orchestras, the teen has vowed to practice hard for the upcoming auditions. Before relocating back east, the La Verne musician hopes to pass his history AP test and plans to get his driving permit. “I’m working on it,” he explains. So far, his hard work has paid off as he has been accepted into the Interlocken summer camp in Michigan, June 25 to Sept. 8. “He’s going to get a taste of being without me,” says his mom.

Proud of her talented son, Karen and her husband Jim fund C.J.’s love plus his brother Dallas’ new interests. They purchase the boys instruments and pay for music lessons and books. Then, there is the cost of gas. “It puts a lot of miles on my car,” she says. “Most of the venues are far away.’

The Alex Theater in Glendale, Occidental College and Pasadena Conservatory are just a few of the venues at which he has performed. Luckily, the school offers transportation to festivals. “We just got back from the Monterey Jazz Competition. We didn’t do so good, but that’s OK,” he says with a shrug. “Can’t win them all I guess.” There are some in which he has walked away with trophies as he won the prestigious Musicians’ Club of Pomona Valley John Child Walker competition in the sixth grade where he demonstrated his solo clarinet playing ability. “That was the best competition,” he exclaims. “It was a lot of fun.”

Yearning for the feeling to play in front of an audience, he performs whenever he has the chance. Competitions are another matter as the feeling is not as enticing. ‘“It’s just some weird psychological difference. You think, ‘Oh my god, there’s something on the line,’” he explains. “And you’ve been practicing for so long, and you screw it up. Yeah, it’s crazy that way.”

Uneasiness does not keep this performer from his dream, as he does not shy away from festivals. He has made the trek to Reno where he played at the Reno Jazz Festival his seventh, eighth and ninth grade years. He has also played at the Monterey Jazz Festival and has travelled to New York where he performed in the Essentially Ellington Competition. “I actually had a solo part, and it was really cool,” he says.

The most absurd festival he has played? The Playboy Jazz Festival. “It just sounds bad, but it’s not erotic or anything,” he clarifies. “I wasn’t there for the bunnies. Maybe they came after we played”

Armed with passion and dedication, the young musician looks forward to his future, one filled with countless experiences and the chance to do what he loves best—play music.

“I love it,” he says. “There’s no better feeling.”