Sam Towse had to stop his car when he heard the news. The 17-year-old was driving home from high school when he answered his hands-free phone and his mom told him he’d be flying to Los Angeles to see the 58th annual Grammy Awards and play piano in the 2016 Grammy Camp — Jazz Session.
“I had to pull over for a second to breathe and calm myself a little bit,” Towse says. “It was a rather exhilarating experience.”
Towse, a Huntington resident who is a senior at the private Friends Academy in Locust Valley and a pre-college jazz piano student at the Manhattan School of Music, was chosen as one of 32 high school students nationwide to participate in the Grammy Camp program.
He leaves for Los Angeles on Feb. 6, the day before his 18th birthday. For an all-expenses-paid 10 days, he will rehearse and then play piano in several performances surrounding the Grammys, including the annual “Grammy in the Schools Live! — A Celebration of Music & Education” on Feb. 11 at California’s Club Nokia featuring singer-songwriter Sam Hunt. The students also will record an album called “Grammy Jazz 24” that will be for sale in April. They will be in the audience at the 58th annual Grammy Awards on Feb. 15 and perform at the official Grammy Celebration after-party.
“For me it’s really a huge opportunity as a young musician to go out and play with all these incredible musicians my age and get to know some of the people I may be working with over the next 20 to 30 years of my life,” says Towse, who hopes to study jazz performance and education at a music conservatory after he graduates from high school in June. “I would assume I’m going to see most of them at some point again because of the smallness of the jazz world. There aren’t that many people who want to pursue it as a career.”
Towse plays several instruments, but has zeroed in on the piano. “I think what it came down to was I felt like I could express myself a little bit better on piano,” he says. “For me, what is really the most incredible and rewarding part of playing music and jazz in particular is the ability to express emotion and give feelings to other people through what I do.”
Towse comes from a family that values creativity — his father, John, 56, works in film and television production on the NBC comedy series “The Mysteries of Laura” and sings and plays guitar as a hobby, and his mother, Michelle, 47, is an executive producer of a TV-commercial production company. His two younger brothers also study at the Manhattan School of Music on Saturdays — Jack, 13, plays trumpet, and Spencer, 10, plays drums.
Michelle, John and grandfather Charles Towse will travel from Long Island to California to see Towse perform. “We’ve been supporting Sam’s love for music since he was about 2 years old, when he started playing piano,” Michelle says. “To see him excel like this is a dream come true.”
Jeremy Manasia, Towse’s piano instructor at the Manhattan School of Music for the past two years, says Towse’s interest in studying the techniques of the old-time great jazz musicians helps him excel. “He has one foot very deeply planted in the past, in the history of jazz music,” Manasia says. “He also has a hunger or thirst for exploring what could possibly be new.” Towse says he admires jazz pianists Bud Powell, who died in 1966, and Bill Evans, who died in 1980. His favorite musicians at the moment include Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder.
TWO HOURS A DAY
The Grammy Camp students were chosen after submitting videos of their work that were screened by professional musicians. The jazz session camp is a “Grammy in the Schools” program of The Grammy Foundation, which is the nonprofit arm of The Recording Academy responsible for the music awards. Jazz is the only genre of music that “Grammy in the Schools” runs a camp program for during the academy’s awards season, and Towse is the only student who was selected from Long Island this year.
Grammy Camp organizers then sent Towse a book of more than 15 songs to learn before Feb. 6, including such titles as “Eye of the Hurricane,” “Maiden Voyage” and “Some Skunk Funk,” along with a CD of the music so he could learn the correct style. “It’s some of the hardest music that I’ve ever come across,” he says. “Not necessarily because of the notes on the page, but trying to match the style.”
In addition to practicing up to two hours a day on the family’s baby grand, Towse is part of Friends Academy’s drama club tech crew that builds sets for shows, and he plays on a Friends intramural volleyball team. “It gives me a chance to be athletic without the danger that would come with a varsity sport,” he says of volleyball. “I’m always very, very cautious of whether my hands are safe. I don’t want to have to worry about taking a baseball to the hand and breaking a bone.”
James Liverani, who co-teaches Towse in the jazz band at Friends Academy, says Towse is living the dream of all his teachers, too. “He’s going to the Grammys. It couldn’t have happened to a better kid.”