Idyllwild Student Sees Connection in Engineering, Jazz

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2016 issue of The Press Enterprise. View clip online.

Idyllwild Arts Academy senior Sam Zorn first picked up a violin at age 2. He went to his first fiddle camp at age 12. By the time he turned 18, he was gigging with recording and touring jazz pros.

As Zorn readies to graduate, possibly as valedictorian, he hopes to be accepted by either Cal Poly San Luis Obispo or Harvey Mudd College.

That’s right, technical schools. Jazz violinist Zorn wants to study environmental engineering.

Why? To be mentally stimulated and remain musically authentic.

“I want to play professionally,” Zorn explained. “(But) I don’t want to play lots of country and pop gigs to support myself. (An engineering career) will allow me to pursue my musical interests more honestly.”

Zorn has explored enough musical genres to know what he enjoys.

His earliest musical memories are of him playing next to his mother, Shannah Zorn, as she accompanied him on piano in their Hemet home. His father John Zorn, a bluegrass musician, played mandolin, and his younger brother Owen, the violin.

In middle school, a series of fiddle camps exposed Zorn to more bluegrass, as well as Appalachian, Klezmer and swing. Bebop and fusion came later.

Before he entered the academy as a sophomore in 2013, Zorn studied classical and Celtic fiddle music with Lily McCabe, then of Idyllwild.

McCabe said he was an “exceptional and fun” student.

“His passion for learning and love of the instrument made teaching a joy,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “It was more an exchange of information and inspiration than a teacher-student relationship.”

McCabe was so impressed by Zorn that when she left Idyllwild in fall 2013, she recommended he take her place in Jazzgrass, a jazz and bluegrass fusion ensemble, when she couldn’t return to play.

Jazzgrass bandleader and keyboardist Barnaby Finch, who knew Zorn from teaching him musical theory, so far is “delighted” with his contribution.

“This music is not where I can get just anybody to do it,” said Finch, who has toured with George Benson and Lee Ritenour. “I need somebody who can improvise, and Sam is a great improviser… (with) a strong sense of experimentation and adventurousness.”

Zorn said his improv ability extends not only from playing bluegrass, but also from a love of engineering things, such as the motorized bicycle he rides on campus.

Performing in Jazzgrass wasn’t Zorn’s first pro gig – he’d played in restaurants and at other small events – but he said it has been one of his biggest learning experiences.

“In school, everyone is still learning their voices,” he explained. “It’s nice to play with people who have already come up with their sound.”

Zorn also has gigged with bassist Marshall Hawkins, who performed with Miles Davis in the 1960s and founded the jazz program at Idyllwild Arts Academy in 1986.

When he’s on stage, Zorn said he enjoys “connecting with the other musicians, and not thinking about anything else beyond what’s in the moment.” That bliss is not lost on Jazzgrass’ bandleader.

“I love the joy he exhibits on the gig,” Finch said.

Zorn wants to continue studying music, though he doesn’t yet know to what extent. He anticipates performing in jazz bands or ensembles while learning engineering.

He sees a relationship between the two disciplines.

“(Music and engineering) are both creative endeavors,” Zorn said. “There are always different ways to do things.”