Congratulations 2019 Graduates

We are happy to report that ten of our seniors intend to go on to study jazz music at the college level. We are so proud of this dedicated, accomplished, and hardworking group of kids! We will miss you and can't wait to see where you go from here!

Taylor Bailey, Saxophone

"I will be attending California State University Northridge to study jazz in the fall. Without Young Lions, I never would have gotten this far. I've only been playing jazz for 2 years and I have progressed so much already. I have had so many opportunities to perform, and I have gained so many wonderful and supportive friends. I also learned how to be responsible, a leader, and how to communicate efficiently all thanks to everyone at the conservatory. I can't express how thankful I am to have been able to be a part of this amazing program."

Wesley Biasi, Drums

"After graduation I will be attending Oberlin College and Conservatory majoring in Jazz Performance. Jazz has been a part of my life since joining my elementary school program in the 5th grade. In 2015, I had the honor of being selected to play drums in the California All-State Junior High School Jazz Band. My jazz studies continued in high school while attending Canyon Crest Academy. Gilbert Castellanos and the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory have provided leadership and performance opportunities that helped build confidence, expand my abilities, and give direction in my life. My heartfelt gratitude to Gilbert, Rob and all the instructors at YLJC for their support, tutelage, and friendship."

Paul Chairez, Guitar and Vocals

"Throughout the year I've had the great privilege and immense honor to play with other students who have the same passion for music as I, and it's changed my life in unimaginable ways. The community of musicians here is tight nit, and regardless of my skill, I have always felt included as a part of the music community. My involvement with Young Lions provided a mass boost in inspiration for me and I've had to step up my musicianship by a lot to be able to be at the level of my younger peers. It pushed me in the direction of improvement and I always look back at what I have achieved and keep learning from my past experiences. This conservatory has prepared me for playing with some of the best up and coming musicians of San Diego, who not only surpass most adults in dedication but caliber of playing. It's really taught me that the biggest competitor in this whole world is me, and it's what has kept me going along this path, just knowing that to beat myself, I have to step higher every day. In the hopes to continue pursuing music, I had applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I was accepted and I am deferring my enrollment so I have a chance to practice more and improve my chances of getting bigger scholarships. However the grind to be the best version of myself continues and will never stop."

Adrian Chang, Double Bass

Double bassist Adrian Chang will graduate from Pacific Ridge School and attend Brown University to study Engineering in the fall. He initially started playing the double bass in classical ensembles at Aviara Oaks Middle and discovered jazz through the jazz ensembles at Pacific Ridge. As a senior and first year at Young Lions, Adrian wishes he had discovered Young Lions earlier in his musical career in high school. His time with the Young Lions conservatory has given him wonderful opportunities to play and experience jazz, and has solidified a much deeper appreciation for the art. Adrian would like to thank Gilbert Castellanos for giving him such a wonderful experience.   

Tiger Diep, Saxophone

Tiger Diep, an 18-year-old saxophonist in Gilbert Castellanos' "New Soil Ensemble," will be graduating from the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and attending New York University on a full tuition Steinhardt merit scholarship to pursue a degree in Jazz Studies. Tiger was named a 2019 YoungArts Winner, a Vail Jazz Workshop Nominee, Spotlight Competition Semi-Finalist, California Jazz Conservatory Full Tuition Scholarship Winner, 2019 Essentially Ellington Outstanding Alto Saxophonist, and a participant in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Summer Jazz Academy. He is extremely grateful to have learned a tremendous amount under the tutelage of Gilbert Castellanos and Rob Thorsen while in YLJC, forming connections with musicians and peers that share the same passion for the music as he does. He hopes to stay involved in the program in the future.

Zion Dyson, Vocals

Zion Dyson, the vocalist in the “New Soil Ensemble,” has just graduated from The Bishop’s School. She started singing jazz at age 13, and for the past 5 years she has studied jazz performance, theory, composition, and history under Gilbert and Lorraine Castellanos. Zion has competed in the Next Generation Jazz Festival for the past four years and is excited to tour internationally as the vocalist in the Next Generation Jazz Orchestra later this year. In 2019, she won first place in the High School Vocal Soloist Category at NGJF, and her combo from Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, directed by Gilbert Castellanos, placed 3rd. She has performed at many venues around San Diego, including San Diego Symphony’s Jazz @ the Jacobs and Bayside Summer Nights, the Athenaeum’s La Jolla and TSRI locations, and many times as the featured performer in the Young Lions Series at Panama 66. Zion has performed with several jazz legends including Sheila Jordan, Mike Woffard, Holly Hofmann, and Gilbert Castellanos.  She received merit-based scholarships to UCSD Jazz Camp and Berklee College of Music Five-Week Summer Program (2016 and 2017). In 2018, she studied at New England Conservatory’s Jazz Lab under the guidance of Michael Mayo. She received a merit scholarship to attend New England Conservatory where she will study Jazz Vocal Performance starting in the fall of 2019. Young Lions Jazz Conservatory has helped form Zion’s musical identity through giving her many chances to perform, building her ensemble leadership skills, and providing opportunities to compose original music. She hopes the friendships and musical partnerships she’s made here will last many years and that one day she might return as an instructor in the program.

Sam Kredich, Trumpet

"I am an 18 year old trumpet player and will be attending UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music for Global Jazz Studies. Young Lions had a large impact on my choice of Major and my experiences with Gilbert and the rest of the faculty have been life changing."

Max May, Saxophone

Max May plays tenor saxophone in Gilbert Castellanos’ Unity Ensemble. Playing with the Young Lions was the first time Max has had the opportunity to play jazz regularly, and it has been an incredible experience. Being exposed to the jazz scene for the first time has changed his entire attitude towards music, and he has learned more than he thought was possible in one year. Young Lions has been a very positive part of his senior year and he wishes has had joined sooner. Max graduates from La Jolla High in June and has received a Presidential Scholarship to attend Tulane University, where he plans to double major in jazz studies and (probably) psychology.

Mack Milne, Bass

After graduating from Canyon Crest Academy, Mack Milne will be attending Berklee College of Music on a Merit Scholarship. He was selected for the First Year Abroad program in Valencia, Spain where he is enrolled in the Bachelor of Music Performance program. Young Lions has given him the tools and experience to pursue the art form of Jazz as a career. Many thanks to Gilbert Castellanos, Ian Buss and Rob Thorsen.

Brandon Ortega, Guitar and Trumpet

Brandon Ortega is a graduating senior at Vista Murrieta High School where he plays guitar and trumpet in the jazz band and combo. He has played with various college jazz bands including Riverside Community College and California State University, Fullerton. He was recently chosen for the Ellington Honor Band at Riverside Community College. Brandon was accepted into the Jazz Studies program at the University of North Texas where he will begin studying in August.  He has enjoyed his time with Young Lions and appreciates the education provided by Gil and Rob who have helped him further his jazz education.

Jorge Perez-Vallejo, Guitar

"After I graduate and move on from Young Lions, I plan on going to Job Corps in Utah, to pursue automotive tech, for 18 months. 

I picked up a guitar at 6 years old and never put it down. Metal has always been my passion, and I had rarely listened to Jazz. Then one day, I was invited to watch my cousin Alvin Paige perform. I was listening intently to the rhythm and eventually started bobbing and weaving and really appreciated the sound of Jazz. I grew up playing Heavy Metal music, and later learned that Metal has some roots in Jazz. Such as scales, and odd time sigs. It was exciting. I then, inquired about how I could get into Young Lions. I was able to get a scholarship- Thank you Sundiata Kata for helping me get into this wonderful program and introducing me to Jazz. Also, thank you Rob Thorsen for giving me great advice, lessons, and feedback. I’d also like to thank all of the band members for accepting me and treating me like family."

Emiliano Garcia, Drums

“Next year I plan on attending Grossmont College for two years obtaining my general education and hopefully transfer to Berklee College of Music where I will further my study of the drum set while at the same time expanding my career with my own music and someday becoming a famous artist. My first year of Young Lions was a good experience because it exposed me to a small taste of jazz, before that I was a mainly self taught "rock" drummer, and that was all. The next year I was hoping in making it in my top jazz ensemble at my school, unfortunately I did not make in and I was pretty depressed but I knew I had two choices, either I don't care and not try my senior year or work my but off and take private lessons to prove myself as a musician. Coming to the realization that jazz drummers like Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey etc. were the ones who influenced my heroes, John Bonham, John Densmore etc. My choice was clear, if I wanted to be one of the greatest drummers in the world I had to study those who would inspire generations of drummers to come. I enrolled into Young Lions where I was put in a combo with Rob Thorsen who pushed me everyday, has given me great gig opportunities and has been a great mentor my senior year. Thanks to Ian Buss for my first year at Young Lions, Gilbert Castellanos for the offers and the jam sessions and Rob Thorsen for being an amazing teacher I would not be where I am today and jazz would have not touched me the way it has touched millions.”


Also graduating is Kristopher Donald (Bass).

Congratulations 2018 Graduates

You've inspired us and we will miss you. We wish you every success in the future and expect no less than great things from each of you. We send you off to the next chapter with all our love.

We want to thank our beloved flutist Grace Dessert for her sincere and heartfelt shout out to Young Lions given live at Panama 66. Grace will be studying at Duke University this fall. Watch the video below:

Grace Dessert, Flute

Next year I am off to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. I plan to study Neuroscience and Music on a premed track.

Young Lions has taught me how to be confident in my playing and, under the guidance of Gilbert, I have grown tremendously as a musician. I am so grateful for my experience in Young Lions and for all the wonderful musicians and people I have had the pleasure of playing with.

Julian Roel, Alto Sax

I will be attending the New School in Manhattan, studying jazz and contemporary music. I have learned too much in Young Lions to describe in just a few sentences, but it introduced me to a wonderful community of musicians who are now my best friends and favorite people to play with. My life would be very different, and not quite so happy if I had not joined Young Lions.


Jason Picker, Piano

Jason Picker is a senior at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego and is the pianist in Gilbert Castellanos’s 11am ensemble. He has been playing jazz since the 7th grade and has become an active member of the San Diego jazz community.  Jason was the pianist for the 2018 Jazz Band of America, a 2018 YoungArts Winner, a 2018 GRAMMY Band Finalist, and a University of North Carolina Kenan Scholar Finalist.  In August he will attend the USC Thornton School of Music on a full tuition Trustee Scholarship.   His primarily emphasis will be in jazz performance but he will also study jazz composition, film scoring and business administration.  The Young Lions Program has provided Jason with the amazing opportunity to connect with other young musicians in the San Diego area who share his passion for jazz. He truly appreciates the guidance and friendship of Gilbert Castellanos, the Young Lions staff, and his fellow Young Lions.  He looks forward to remaining an active part of this wonderful community.

Nicholas Abaunza, Drums

Nick is headed to Boston in the fall to major in Jazz Studies at New England Conservatory.

Young Lions, especially the gigs at Panama 66, have taught him leadership, professionalism and responsibility. It is one thing for musicians to play a set list that their instructor provides them. But Young Lions encourages its musicians to collaborate and develop their own set list for these gigs. To see how well the students accomplish this and turn out an amazing show is impressive and will serve them well in their adult lives whether they pursue music, business, or any other profession.

Jiakai Chang, Trombone

Jiakai Chang is honored and thankful to have been a part of Young Lions this year. He will be attending Northwestern University in the fall, though he is yet to decide his major. But whatever he decides, he knows he will definitely take his trombone with him. Thank you to Rob for being the best, kindest, most hipster teacher he’s ever had, and thank you to Young Lions for the opportunity to play with some of the best jazz musicians in town.

Tate McKay, Guitar

After graduation I will be studying jazz guitar at DePaul University.  The Young Lions Jazz Conservatory has provided me an educational opportunity that I could not have gotten anywhere else in San Diego.  Young Lions draws great musicians, so I had the opportunity to play with great student players.  The environment is encouraging and brings out the best in all of us.  The caliber of instructors is the best.  We also got great opportunities to gig, including playing the Copley Symphony Hall lobby for Jazz at the Jacobs events and the Monterrey Next Generation Jazz Festival.

Liam Keefe, Alto Sax

I will be going to college at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. At Eastman I will be majoring in jazz saxophone with a planned minor in classical composition. By participating in Young Lions I have increased my knowledge of the jazz form in improvisation and in group playing. Working and learning under mentors Rob Thorsen and Gilbert Castellanos has really transformed my playing, taking it to a new level.

Santino Arellano, Alto Sax

I have been playing alto saxophone since the 5th grade. I first decided that I wanted to play jazz when I met Gilbert Castellanos at a production of Federal Jazz Project.  I’m planning to go to City College and transfer to University College Cork for Archaeology. It was an honor to have the opportunities presented to me by the Conservatory, and I believe that the musical skills I have learned will impact me for the rest of my life.