Local teen performs at New Orleans Jazz Fest

Local teen performs at New Orleans Jazz Fest
Miles Sam performing at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May. (Courtesy photo)

By James Matheson | jmatheson@alextimes.com

When asked, Miles Sam might bashfully tell you he first started playing guitar in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown, but Sam’s humble demeanor is almost softer than his hushed voice whispering to a dimly lit club in Washington, D.C.

The 17-year-old jazz and soul musician didn’t tell his friends he was performing at the 2024 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest until after the fact. He describes himself as a “show, don’t tell person.” Sam lets his guitar do the talking, he said.

This spring when Sam – dressed in all black against a burnt orange backdrop in the Louisiana heat – found himself performing a guitar solo on the same stage that the Rolling Stones would play later that day, his music journey had come full circle.

“Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Miles Sam,” a Water Seed band member shouted into the festival crowd. “17 years old, give it up – Rock ‘em Miles, c’mon.”

Just two weeks before Sam stepped to the front of the stage and played a nearly minute-long electric guitar solo on May 5, the young musician learned that the combination of his talent and his family’s ties were taking Sam to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest to accompany the band Water Seed.

The festival, known as Jazz Fest, has featured icons like Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington since its birth in 1970.

“At first I was like, ‘No way,’ because at my house – since my dad originates from New Orleans – we have Jazz Fest posters everywhere,” Sam said. “So it seemed like something that definitely wasn’t obtainable at this point.”

Sam’s mentor and adopted uncle, Cyril Darensbourg, said he knew Sam was prepared for this moment. Darensbourg, of Big Red NOLA Publishing, is Water Seed’s publisher and was vital in setting up the arrangement, Sam said.

Darensbourg and Miles’s dad, Dr. Albert Sam, also attended the same high school at Brother Martin, an all-boys Catholic school in New Orleans.

“This is something Water Seed has done in the past – allow other artists to perform with them. … So, I asked them to do the same thing with Miles, to give him a chance,” Darensbourg said. “It’s something I asked them to do for me, just to give Miles exposure. Afterwards, Lou [Hill] also gave his opinion and feedback on what he felt would be a good path for him.”

Hill is the drummer, vocalist and songwriter of the funk band, Water Seed.

“[Hill] was quite impressed,” Darensbourg said. “Everybody is impressed with his work ethic. That’s what was really impressive to me about him, he really practiced every day.”

Miles Sam during one of his shows in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Sam has been plucking a string instrument since he was 6 years old when he began playing the cello. It wasn’t until 2020 when the now-rising senior at Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in the District – with his eyes now set on Berklee College of Music, University of Southern California, New York University and the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins – really started jamming.

Amid the pandemic, online school and the loneliness that accompanies a seventh grader on a move to a new home, Sam turned to the guitar.

“We moved to [Alexandria]. We didn’t know a soul. He didn’t have any friends. He wasn’t in school – so all he had was his guitar,” Albert Sam said. “When I tell you he played it constantly, I mean we had to just put him to sleep because he wouldn’t stop playing. That’s all he had.”

Sam’s early childhood years were spent in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before moving to Connecticut and then Alexandria. As Sam finished seventh grade in the Port City through remote-learning with his previous middle school in Connecticut, he continued to grow in his pursuit of music and molded his talent around icons like Prince and Carlos Santana.

“[I] got influenced by Prince, saw Purple Rain, and that’s where I got the inspiration to pursue this,” Sam said. “When I got to Ellington, that’s where I got exposed to classical music, classical training and jazz as well. It’s where I’ve fallen in deep love with both jazz and classical music.”

Sam attended Alexandria’s Francis C. Hammond Middle School and then spent his freshman year at Alexandria City High School before transferring to Duke Ellington in 2022 for his sophomore year.

Miles is the youngest of Albert and Roberta Sam’s four children. Rather than playing a sport like the rest of his siblings, the baby of the family pursued music.

“All of the kids had to either play a sport or play an instrument,” Albert Sam said. “We do that as parents because we want to have children who learn how to play in the sandlot with other people. A team sport helps with that and music helps with that, plus it’s just good for the brain.”

Sam started playing the acoustic guitar around the age of 7. While he was musically talented at a young age, the family had no idea Miles’ ceiling was so high.

“I had no idea that he’d want to do this for a living. In fact, he switched to the acoustic guitar around 7, and it was like pulling teeth,” Albert Sam said. “He didn’t like it, because he was playing Christmas recitals – little stuff.”

While in Connecticut, the family purchased Miles his first electric guitar and enrolled him in the School of Rock. Albert Sam said this is when Miles’ love for the guitar proliferated.

“It was motivating, because at the time I thought whatever I was playing was like magic coming out of my fingers. So now, it’s funny to look back on videos from years ago,” Sam said. “It was fun at first because it was raw and I didn’t know anything – I still don’t know anything – but I definitely didn’t know anything back then.”

In addition to practice, Darensbourg and Albert Sam emphasize preparing Miles to not just be an all-around performer, but be able to manage gigs and the business side of the industry too. Miles’ easy-going nature and willingness to work with other musicians helps him in organizing gigs, other artists while shuffling different styles and guests into shows, Darensbourg said.

“Three years ago, Miles and I started recording, and I can tell you, when I first met Miles, he was into heavy metal,” Darensbourg said. “When you hear his guitar playing from three years ago to now, you really can hear his development and change in his taste of music.”

Sam played in a punk band from eighth grade until sophomore year and has since hosted a concert series on the last Monday of every month titled, “Monday Before Dark.” Darensbourg highlighted the fact that there are limits to being a one-dimensional musician. Possessing the tools needed to manage the business side of the industry allows more flexibility to maintain a steady income.

“One thing I’ve always tried to caution him with is not to go too fast with this. You only get to be 17 once, and unfortunately, one of the downfalls of the music industry is being exposed to all the stuff that they’re exposed to,” Darensbourg said. “If you’re not mentally there yet, they can have unfortunate, negative impacts too.”

But both Sam’s father and adopted uncle-turned-mentor say he’s more than ready for success in the industry. Sam plans to major in either composition or jazz studies in college as he continues to build upon his Jazz Fest experience and pursue a career in music.

“Amazing experience, I loved every second of it,” Sam said. “It was my first time playing a music festival, especially at that grand capacity – it was huge.”

Correction: The first version of this article stated Miles Sam was interested in attending University of California, Berkeley. This article has been updated to reflect he is interested in the Berklee College of Music in Boston.