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St. Olaf student receives DownBeat music award

Jenna York '27 records in the studio.
Jenna York ’27 records in the studio.

St. Olaf College student Jenna York ’27 was selected as a winner in the latest student music awards contest hosted by DownBeat, a major magazine dedicated to jazz, blues, and beyond.

Last summer York participated in the School for Music Vocation (SMV) Vocal Jazz Camp held at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa. Under the tutelage of jazz musician and instructor Tyler Thomas, York recorded two songs at the end of the camp that she submitted to the DownBeat awards contest in the category of Engineered Studio Recording. She won high honors for her work.

York first attended the SMV Vocal Jazz Camp two years ago, and she says “it was not what I expected — but in the best way possible.”

Before arriving at the camp, York and the other participants received three vocal jazz tunes —  swing, ballad, and Latin American pieces — to learn on their own. At the camp, the participants were split into groups and would learn two more pieces over the course of the week. Each night after a long day of learning, participants were selected to perform a song that they had been assigned over the summer, with the accompaniment of a backing band.

“You’re nervous because you don’t know what to expect, but it’s immediately very welcoming. You cheer for the other participants, you encourage them. It was like that for the rest of the camp,” she says. “It’s so hard to articulate how impactful the camp is because it was like no other.”

Jenna York '27 performs at the School for Music Vocation (SMV) Vocal Jazz Camp.
Jenna York ’27 performs at the School for Music Vocation (SMV) Vocal Jazz Camp.

The camp made such an impression that York decided to attend again in the summer of 2023. At the end of that camp, she stayed behind an extra day to record in the studio and later submitted two pieces to the DownBeat contest. The two songs that York recorded at the camp were Dindi by Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Close Your Eyes by Bernice Petkere. 

“One of the most important things that I learned from that experience is that I am very hard on myself with music,” says York. “But the camp director told me ‘The best thing about jazz and live music is that you make mistakes — people want to hear you make mistakes because it’s raw and genuine.'”

She’s been bringing that perspective to her musical work on the Hill. “Something that I have been talking about in one of my music classes at St. Olaf is AI” she says. “A lot of live music is the sound of being human – in my recording I had a voice crack but I liked it, because it felt authentic.” she says

On campus, York is part of the Agnes A Cappella vocal ensemble and participated in Manitou Singers during her first year. She is also part of Tempest, one of the ultimate frisbee teams on campus, and the Student Congregation Council. She will also return to the SMV Vocal Jazz Camp this summer.

“I want to encourage others to go to the camp, because it’s a unique experience. Even if you haven’t had any vocal jazz experience before, this camp is for anyone and for any age,” says York.
The latest issue of DownBeat is currently available at St. Olaf in the Halvorson Music Library and online on the DownBeat website.