By Anna Harris (Courtesy photo)
Music is Vaughn Ambrose’s life.
When he isn’t performing at venues far and wide, the jazz saxophonist teaches music at T.C. Williams. And if that didn’t keep him busy enough, Ambrose also serves as the band director and music department chair at Francis C. Hammond Middle School.
Oh, and on the side, he heads local programs designed to foster young talent.
His focus on young musicians is fitting. After all, he started out similar to many of his protégés while growing up in Midway Park, N.C.
He discovered the saxophone in his sixth-grade beginner’s band. Though he originally planned to play clarinet, he quickly fell for the sax.
Ambrose began working through the music book. It took him two weeks to reach the back cover, and his love for the instrument grew as he played.
“I told my mom, ‘Mom I’m going to play saxophone to the world,’” Ambrose said. “She said, ‘OK, you just need to go out and practice.’ It was never a conversation about money.”
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. His enthusiasm dimmed under the influence of a passionless band director in high school.
But in Ambrose’s senior year, Perry Ditch came to Wide Oak High School. The new band director was young and enthusiastic about his students and their musical futures.
Ambrose remembers Ditch supporting him in every aspect, helping him with college application essays and driving him to his entrance audition with East Carolina University.
“That’s what really pushed me to be a music director,” said Ambrose. “I had several mentors, but I would not be where I am if he hadn’t walked into that program and gotten me in the right direction.”
With Ditch’s help, Ambrose got into East Carolina University and joined the school’s top jazz ensemble. While a student, he met another person who would become a major influence in his life: his band director, Carroll Dashiell.
If Ditch planted the seed for a fertile musical career, then Dashiell was the sun and rain, exposing Ambrose to music, musicians and opportunities from all over the world.
“He cared about each and every one of us,” Ambrose said. “We traveled to California. We had airtime on ‘The Tonight Show.’ ... We toured Europe, played in the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. ... He sparked the fire to continue to perform.”
As a native of D.C., Dashiell convinced Ambrose to move to the nation’s capital when he graduated in 1997 with a degree in music education.
Along with teaching, Ambrose performs locally and nationally, once even going on a tour of war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon. He also heads the Charlie Parker with Strings Project, performing in places like Canada and his home state.
And now Ambrose and his wife, Robyn, are in the beginning stages of creating a society in Alexandria dedicated to preserving jazz and jazz education in the area.
“That’s something that’s really important to me and my wife — that we make the music accessible to children and young folks [and individuals in the community] who want to study the music,” he said.
His fervor strikes those he meets. Dashiell said it just shows the quality of Ambrose’s character.
“Well, you know, first of all I’m like the proud papa bear ... because he has matured into an outstanding man ... and I always put that first,” said Dashiell. “Your character is who you are and that carries into everything he does.”
Why is Ambrose so passionate about fostering young musicians? And why does it matter? Because music and artists are the bedrocks of culture, he said.
“True art is how we grow forward as a society,” Ambrose said. “The people who will change the world are the artists.”