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Jazzing It Up At North High

For jazz saxophonist Sam Dillon, returning to North High School upon the invitation of Joseph Rutkowski, director of instrumental music, was an opportunity to spend time with classical music students and give them an intimate glimpse into making jazz and becoming a professional musician. He says, “It was so nice to come back to North High and see the school through more mature eyes ... Mr. Rutkowski is such an amazing teacher ... He really treats his students like professional musicians and expects them to give their best ... I can be in the middle of a gig and still hear his voice ringing in my ear.”


Sam described his former teacher as someone who encourages his music students to build good habits that are essential if they choose to become professional musicians and provides them with a solid foundation to build upon.  Sam laughs and says, “He always said that being on time is being 15 minutes early.” 


And he recalls how thrilled he was upon completing a performance at Lincoln Center to learn that Mr. Rutkowski was in the audience. “It meant so much to me and was such a surprise,” he commented. 


Rutkowski, a concert clarinetist, who has performed in numerous prestigious venues and garnered high praise from the New York Times as “ agile and powerful player,” says, “Sam has taught me so much about jazz,  I felt sure that he would inspire my students...and he did. It was a great morning of music.”


The students enthusiastically agreed.


Ellen Xu, who is a cellist wrote in an email, “Sam Dillon was an amazing saxophonist and inspirational musician! He taught us that music wasn’t just playing plain notes written on a piece of paper, but a story that each musician told from the soul. By showing us many techniques, he proved to us that the daily warm-ups and scales we did in class were extremely efficient and useful in playing such pieces and will help us become better musicians.” 


Jee-su Yune, who plays the flute added, “I have learned that music can be expressed as however I want, even it is not written on paper, and to achieve that I would have to practice a lot!”


For Sam, music encompasses his life. He fell in love with jazz and the saxophone when he was 10 years old . This reporter clearly remembers hearing him play at age 14 with the great trombonist Al Grey at the Great Neck Arts Center and being taken with his skill, ingenuity and passion. 


Avidly pursuing all opportunities in music, he completed his formal training at SUNY Purchase College where he studied with Eric Alexander, receiving his Masters Degree in Jazz Performance in 2009.


Sam stays extremely busy. He practices three to four hours a day, making sure that his technical prowess is well honed and then spends time learning new music and composing. He teaches private students in saxophone, clarinet and flute covering a wide range of styles from classical repertoires to jazz improvisation which he considers a way to honor the great teachers he has had. And then, there is the performing and recording with renowned artists. “The reward is making music,” he adds.


Sam commented that some gifted musicians are held back from pursuing careers in music because of fear...fear that the life is too hard and that they will not be able to support themselves. He has learned that jazz gives him the freedom to express himself, to be part of a team collaborating with other musicians to make music and to be “totally immersed in the moment and the music.” From his standpoint and with his experience so far, “it would be hard to accept anything less.”


And on the day he came back “home” to North High, he won a convert.


David Elyaho, who plays violin wrote, “When I heard that Sam Dillon was coming to visit us and play some jazz for us, I never imagined that he would be so amazing!


To be completely honest, at first I thought that it wouldn’t be too enjoyable because I never really listened to jazz too often, but after hearing Mr Dillon perform, I have found a new love for jazz. I love how he decided to explain the minute details of jazz to the class, and I can honestly say that I can’t wait for him to come back to visit us again!”


Currently, Sam is hard at work preparing for the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. The competition revolves around a different instrument each year and this year it is the saxophone ... and since it is only open to musicians 30 and under, this would be the last year that 29-year old Sam Dillon will be eligible.


His many devoted fans in Great Neck who have watched and heard him develop and grow over the years will be rooting for him!