Division: Contemporary Music
Program: Jazz Studies
Championed by some of music’s most celebrated figures, Sara Gazarek has emerged as a strikingly original artist. Gazarek is steeped in the jazz tradition, but is not afraid to embrace the music that moves her generation. Born and raised in Seattle, Gazarek grew up without much exposure to jazz. She denotes any and all preliminary jazz education to her high school big band and choir director, Scott Brown. “He afforded us a lot of educational opportunities at festivals and competitions,” Gazarek remembers.
As a senior in high school, she was awarded the first-ever Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation Outstanding Jazz Vocalist Award at the Essentially Ellington Festival in New York City. Gazarek made her way to Los Angeles in 2000 and began studying with John Clayton, Shelley Berg, Tierney Sutton, and Carmen Bradford at the USC Thornton School of Music. While there, she helped develop the JazzReach program and, as a result, was able to spend two years working with inner city elementary school children as a jazz choir director. “I’ll never forget that experience. It is so important to me to be out there, educating young people,” she says. Gazarek continues to educate young people today as the sole ambassador for the nonprofit music and arts education organization, Music For All. She and her band give clinics at local schools while on tour, because, as Gazarek puts it, “education is such an important part of our lives, and the band and I know we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that one teacher who showed us the way. It is our duty to give back.”
In 2003, Gazarek was awarded the 2003 Downbeat Student Music Award for Best Collegiate Vocalist. Shortly after the publication hit the press, she was asked to perform with Oleta Adams, Karrin Allyson, and Diane Schuur as the “as yet undiscovered talent” on the Concord Jazz Festival tour. Simultaneously, she joined a number of A-list clientele (including Barry Manilow and Allyson) as a Stiletto Entertainment client and was soon being booked by the industrious William Morris Agency. Luckily, at a time when it would have been easy for Gazarek to lose track of her artistic goals, Clayton, a mentor and teacher at USC, provided a grounding influence. When record labels first came knocking and she started to question her place, it was Clayton who set her straight. “He said, ‘Sara, everyone has his or her own path, and there’s no path that’s any more respectable than any other,’” she recalls. “‘As long as you do your homework and keep striving to be a better musician, you’ll have a lasting career.’” Clayton agreed to produce her first album, Yours, and insisted she develop the arrangements herself with the band she’d been performing with. She found musical soul mates in her group, and the resulting record was a debut that was released to national and international rave reviews. It ranked in the Top 10 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Charts, Top 10 on the iTunes top Jazz Album Downloads (U.S., U.K., Switzerland, and Belgium), #1 on the iTunes Top Jazz Album Downloads (Germany, France), #5 on the Jazz Week Radio Charts, and #4 on the HMV (Japan) chart. She has recently been appointed to the faculty at her alma mater, the USC Thornton School of Music.