This blog is part of a series of posts highlighting the 10 inaugural grantees of the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund.

Raising the Next Generation of Jazz

Turn on the radio – any radio station or genre of music – and it’s likely you’ll hear some jazz influence in the music. The mission of Young Lions Jazz Conservatory (YLJC) is to keep that influence and legacy alive.

Founded by Artistic Director and award-winning local musician Gilbert Castellanos, YLJC aims to enrich young lives through the power of jazz music. The nonprofit organization focuses on teaching students the educational components of music: jazz theory, history, cultural context, Latin/Afro/Brazilian rhythms and hosts master classes with internationally recognized musicians.

“It all got started with a dream of trying to raise the next generation of musicians here in San Diego,” Castellanos said. “The students inspire and motivate me. It all pays off being in the classroom with them.”

Students range in age from elementary school to high school.

Young Lions first started as a youth jazz series in 2013 and later developed into the full nonprofit organization it is today.

“We had to find a way to get the youth involved,” said Castellanos. “It was rare to see a young musician playing jazz. I really wanted to take advantage that we had a thriving jazz scene here already.”

Inspiring Imagination

Frequent rehearsals and performances give each student in the program a moment to shine. Aside from jazz music skills, students also develop important social and emotional skills.

As a relatively new member of Young Lions, Luke Little has already noticed the impacts that mentorship and performances have had on his life.

“I’ve definitely felt myself grow and mature a lot,” Little said. “[Performing] puts you in that environment where you need to adapt very quickly. That discomfort allows us to grow a lot. On top of that, it’s just a lot of fun to perform.”

For Vinh Son Nguyen, a guitar player at Young Lions, he’s found the organization and music to be a great escape.

“There’s nothing better than playing with a group of musicians that understand you,” Nguyen said. “Music is one of the most important things in my life. When I’m playing, I don’t think about my troubles. It takes me away.”

Setting Students Up for Success

Young Lions Jazz Conservatory

As an organization, Young Lions provides more than just an introduction to ‘America’s classical music.’  The collaborative learning environment also develops an appreciation for community.

“The music goes above and beyond all that because it establishes a community among the kids,” Castellanos said. “They have this incredible friendship now – even outside of class.”

Students may also see a future for themselves in music.

“We have a lot of students that never had expectations of being a professional musician,” Castellanos said. “Now they’re going to college on full rides.”

Young Lions Jazz Conservatory is an inaugural grant recipient as part of the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund.

Young Lions Jazz Conservatory

About the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund

In February 2023, Jay Kahn, a local entrepreneur and music lover, donated an unrestricted $100 million cash gift to San Diego Foundation – the largest-ever gift of its kind to a local nonprofit. Thanks to his generosity, SDF created the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund, which will perpetually benefit San Diego.

The first grants from Kahn’s gift, which is the third-largest gift of its kind to a U.S. community foundation, include $150,000 unrestricted grants to 10 San Diego-based music education nonprofits to advance their work in the community. The grants intend to grow music appreciation in San Diego in memory of Kahn.

One of the inaugural Jay Kahn Endowment Fund grantees is Young Lions Jazz Conservatory. Its mission is to enrich young lives, inspire imagination, intellectual curiosity, character and self-confidence in students through jazz. Young Lions Jazz Conservatory gives young musicians diverse, experiential and meaningful learning opportunities to sustain and enhance the development of jazz.

Jay Kahn was born on February 23, 1932, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to a recently immigrated German father and his second-generation wife. Jay left Benton Harbor just out of high school after receiving a full scholarship to study clarinet at the University of Texas, Denton. Though he didn’t finish the program, classical music, specifically chamber music for winds, remained a lifelong passion of Jay’s. He played in several ensembles around San Diego, including orchestras at UC San Diego and the University of San Diego.

Learn how you can give with San Diego Foundation.