Front Porch

Shades of Ella: Zion Dyson

Zion Dyson. Photo by Manuel Cruces Camberos.

Photo by Manuel Cruces Camberos.

Even before I get a chance to speak to Zion Dyson, it’s apparent that this new talent loves to sing. Calling her to arrange an interview, the phone rang and rang again; finally Zion’s recording came on; she starts out just like everybody else, “Hi, this is Zion. I’m sorry that I can’t take your call…” Then, just as when Anne Hathaway is not so miserable in Les Mierables, or when the Jets are Jets till their last dyin’ day in West Side Story, or when Julie Andrews gazes across the Alps and the hills are alive, Zion sings “♫♫♫ SO ♬ LEAVE ♪ ♩ A ♩ ♬ MESSAGE ♫♫♫!!!

The San Diego teen has had music lovers taking notice. With a voice that is light and obviously filled with youth, she has been bringing new life to songs of Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Anita O’Day. Where other teens may have Bruno Mars or the latest hip-hop rage on their smartphones, Zion is swinging out to “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “On Green Dolphin Street,” and other standards that were cemented into the Great American Songbook decades ago.

The San Diego native has music and performing in her blood. Both of her parents are involved in music, with her mother playing piano and composing, mostly church music, Zion says, and her father being a player of middle-eastern hand percussion. Her mother was in a number of musicals and stage productions in her youth and encouraged her daughter to do the same. “I was with Junior Theatre, but it took a while before I took an audition,” Zion says. “But my mom promised me a dog if I would audition. So I auditioned for the role of Annie. And I got the part!” Along with the lead role, Zion got the dog, as promised, a Havanese, a breed that originated in Cuba and is very intelligent, affectionate and playful. She named her Molly.

For some time Zion found an artistic home in San Diego Junior Theatre. “I really liked it, and I thought theatre was going to be it for me. I was really young, and here I was working with seniors in high school,” she says. Junior Theater took a backseat, however, while she spent time in Los Angeles, pounding the pavement of Hollywood auditioning for television shows. She secured a few spots on commercials but not much else in the City of Angels came to fruition. Things changed for the performer when she was asked to sing on a movie soundtrack. A friend’s father was in the middle of making a film and hired Lorraine Castellanos, Zion’s vocal teacher, and Zion to sing a song, a jazz number, for the soundtrack. The whole experience opened up the world of jazz and jazz singing to the very young performer. Subsequently, Castellanos continued to introduce and foster the youngster to jazz and jazz singing.

She made her debut at Croce’s West three years ago. The Bankers’ Hill restaurant, which has since closed its doors, was home to the Young Lions series, a musical showcase founded by local jazz trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos (Lorraine’s husband) as a way of fostering young jazz talent. As so many nightspots are off-limits to those under the age of 21, there are not a great number of performance spaces for teens. Youngsters can practice and immerse themselves in jazz studies classes, but they still need a place to perform, a place where they can hone their skills.

It may have been good enough for Castellanos to pick and choose a talented teen or two to include in his ensemble to mentor along, but there is so much more to the process than simply showing up for a gig. To take part in the Young Lions a musician has to put together an ensemble and make up the set list, to be, in essence, a real professional musician.

Being only 13 when she performed as part of the series, Zion received a little help. Lorraine assisted with putting together the set list, and Gilbert helped by gathering the talent for the event. Zion says, “I sang with some of the best musicians in town. Ed Kornhauser was on piano and Evona Wascinski played bass.”

When the conversation turns to jazz singers she admires, the 16-year-old does not hesitate to mention Ella Fitzgerald. She has transcribed a number of the jazz legend’s scat solos, the improvised type of jazz singing for which Fitzgerald has no equal. She also admires the subtle vocal work of trumpeter Chet Baker. Though she finds much to admire about these and other great jazz vocalists, Zion doesn’t try to fit herself into any mold or model. “Jazz vocals, what they’re really all about is trying to find your own voice. And that’s what I’m trying to do,” she says. KSDS is the station tuned to Zion’s car radio. San Diego’s premier jazz radio station (well, actually, San Diego’s only jazz radio station) provides her with material and ideas for songs to try. “I’ll listen and think, ‘That is such a cool song!’” One of her favorite recordings is Dinah Jams, a live recording that Dinah Washington produced in 1954 and is filled with standards that Zion has taken for her own.

Though she loves to sing, Zion admits that it can be challenging to be a jazz singer. “People want an emotional quality from a song, particularly a ballad,” she says. “To get that, it helps if I’m in a smaller setting, singing to a smaller group or people. The times that I’m able perform in a setting like that, I seem to be able to make the most of it then.” She has found that the small bar at the Westgate, with its almost postage stamp size and just the bar’s piano and a bass player, is an ideal setting to explore the emotional depths of a song and connect with an audience.

A junior at the Bishop’s School, the academically challenging and award-winning college prep institution in La Jolla, Zion is exploring her possibilities, which may include a career outside of music. “I really like math,” she explains. “And the way they teach math at our school is different from the way they teach it at other schools. It’s from a company back east called the Exeter Academy. With this method, we’re given problems to solve. We figure them out at home, and then we come back to school and we teach the other students how we solved the problem. I really like teaching, and I might enjoy pursuing that.”

With these other interests and talents Zion has not settled her plans after she graduates from Bishop’s School. “I’m trying to decide whether I want to go to conservatory and just concentrate solely on music or go to a college or university where I might major in music, minor in math or something like that,” she says. One university receiving a look or two is the University of Southern California, with its highly regarded Thornton School of Music.

Whatever the future might bring, right now, for Zion it is almost entirely jazz, jazz, and more jazz. She takes part in an ensemble at her school, which is a sort of School of rock thing that plays mostly classic rock tunes, but her heart lies with the music of Nat King Cole, Lady Day, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong. She has a Christmas-themed performance at Panama 66 coming up on December 20th.

“Jazz is just so much fun. It’s a great community of musicians that support each other,” Zion says. “Especially here in San Diego, it’s wonderful how much the musicians in San Diego support each other.”

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