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Teen jazz musician brings national recognition back from Big Apple

When Isabella Sagia came home from elementary school one day and announced that she wanted to play the saxophone, her mother was a bit incredulous.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” laughed Melanie Freeman, Sagia’s mother. “I was like, ‘You don’t want to start with something smaller, maybe the clarinet?’ But I thought, ‘Hey, let’s do it!’”

Although most 10-year-olds would likely find it discouraging to begin their musical education with such a difficult instrument, the now-14-year-old Sagia stuck with it — and excelled.

While Sagia knows many kids her age aren’t into jazz, she says the genre’s complexity and nuances hold a special appeal for her.

“There can be one song, but there’s different versions of that song, and there’s some people that do seven different recordings of it, and it’s always different,” she said. “It seems like people can express themselves more without the words.”

Keeping up with a demanding schedule of band practices and performances has not come without sacrifices for Sagia, who plays with the Buena marching band as well as the award-winning Tucson Jazz Institute. She has managed to maintain her straight-A average by doing her homework in the car on the long drives to Tucson for practice, she said.

Freeman said that while she sometimes worries about whether her daughter takes on too much, it’s what she wants to do.

“She is the most dedicated person I know,” said Freeman. “I’ve never seen someone so passionate about one thing, especially so young at 14.

“It’s just amazing.”

One of the highlights of Sagia’s jazz career occurred in May, when she traveled to New York City as part of the jazz institute band to compete in the 23rd Annual Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival Awards. She played trumpet with the Tucson band that was selected to compete out of the 109 high school bands from throughout the country that auditioned,

Sagia’s ensemble ended up placing third out of 15 finalists that performed.

“That was really a great experience that brought the whole band together,” said Sagia. “We were able to get to know each other more, and going to New York, it was kind of nerve-wracking, but really exciting.”

Following the competition, the band had another exciting experience: They recorded a CD with Grammy-winning vocalist Dennis Rowland in June. It will be released this winter.

“It was fun because we had a big mess of cords and microphones and all that stuff,” said Sagia. “It took a while to get the whole sound right, and we ended up having him stand in the bathroom to record.”

Sagia shows a natural affinity for music in addition to the long hours she puts in practicing, and has the rare gift of perfect pitch, her mother said. Not a musician herself, Freeman wasn’t aware of the extent of her the teen’s gift until Sagia’s instructors told her.

“It isn’t until someone else tells you that you realize how unique this,” she said. “And you realize that it’s more than just mom pride.”

While Sagia doesn’t plan to pursue music as an adult, Freeman is proud of her no matter what she decides to do in the future, she said.

“She just works hard — she puts her all into everything she does.”

For the time being, Sagia plans to continue on with both the Buena marching band and the jazz institute while navigating high school. Regardless of what career path she chooses, music will always be a part of her life, she said.

“I was looking at either becoming a psychiatrist or doing something in the field of genetics,” she said. “But I still love music. In like 20 years, I think I’ll still love playing trumpet.”

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