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Spotlight on Johnny Steele: A Young Lions Success Story

Johnny Steele on tour with Matthew Whitaker - Brazil 2023.

In 2013, the San Diego jazz scene witnessed the birth of the Young Lions series, thanks to the visionary efforts of Gilbert Castellanos. This initiative not only showcased emerging talents but also provided mentorship to aspiring jazz musicians. Among the many talents Castellanos mentored was an exceptional young drummer, Johnny Steele.

Steele's journey in jazz is nothing short of remarkable. At the tender age of 16, in 2016, he joined Castellanos' house band at the jam sessions in Panama 66. His presence and talent shone brightly, inspiring Castellanos to evolve the Young Lions series into something even more impactful. In 2017, the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory was founded, a non-profit organization dedicated to nurturing young jazz enthusiasts.

Steele attended San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and graduated a year early at just 17. His talents and determination led him to the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. The summer of his acceptance coincided with the inception of the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory, where Steele performed at the debut fundraising event, marking a full-circle moment in his journey.

2022 was a landmark year for Steele. He released his debut album, "The Game," showcasing his refined skills and artistic vision. That same year, he joined Matthew Whitaker's group, embarking on a global tour that included performances at renowned festivals like the ELBJazz Festival in Hamburg, The Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, The Montreal Jazz Festival in Canada, and The Rio Das Ostras Jazz e Blues Festival in Brazil, where he played for an audience of twenty thousand.

Looking ahead, Steele's aspirations extend beyond the stage. He is passionate about education and giving back to the community that nurtured his growth. This commitment to fostering new talent will ensure that the legacy of the YLJC continues.

San Diego eagerly awaits Steele's return on December 10th, as he tours with Matthew Whitaker. Don't miss the chance to witness this rising star in action. Tickets are available now for what promises to be an unforgettable performance.


“I think he’ll be one of the leading jazz drummers of his generation.” — Ulysses Owens Jr. (GRAMMY Award winning drummer)


How did you meet Gilbert Castellanos, and what role did he play in shaping your musical path?

"I met Gilbert at a very early Young Lions show at Croce’s Park West, before there was an established educational program. Gilbert was instrumental in pushing me to my limits as a young musician. He got me on stage with professionals when I was 14 and challenged me by having me learn stimulating music and performing it live. I’m forever grateful for the opportunities he gave me. The experience gained from his hands-on education has paid off tremendously!"

In what ways has the San Diego jazz community contributed to your development as a musician?

"The San Diego jazz community has contributed to my development in so many ways. It’s the reason why I can continue to be open to new musical perspectives. It’s also the reason why I can respond and interact with musicians on stage. The SD Community allowed me to put in the reps with really high-quality, amazing musicians."

There is a Johnny Steele Scholarship that gets awarded to a YLJC drummer. Can you tell us a little about that and how it came to be?

"After I got accepted into the Juilliard Jazz Program, my family and I wanted to give back to the YLJC because they had been so instrumental in getting me to that point. As a show of gratitude and to make it easier for future drummers to follow their dreams, we established the Johnny Steele scholarship."

Can you share any collaborations or performances within the San Diego jazz scene that have left a lasting impression on you?

"My collaborations with Gilbert while I was the house drummer at Panama 66 were incredibly impactful for me. Other musicians that left a lasting impression on me were Robert Dove, Charlie Arbalaez, Matt Hall, Rob Thorsen, Steph Johnson, and Joshua White!"

Are there specific aspects of the San Diego jazz scene that you find unique or distinctive compared to other parts of the country?

"The San Diego jazz scene puts significantly more effort into fostering the development of youth than any other city. They really care about creating new generations of prepared and well-rounded musicians. You won’t find that in other places."

You graduated high school a year early and were accepted into Juilliard at the young age of 17. Did this present any unique challenges for you personally or your musical development?

"It certainly presented personal challenges. It was quite hard to become an adult in the blink of an eye. I had to learn a lot in a short amount of time — about taking care of myself, staying organized, creating and maintaining new relationships, etc. — but musically, I felt like I was in the right place. It was very challenging but also very fun!"

How do you see the role of YLJC in fostering growth beyond jazz and being a jazz musician?

"YLJC teaches young students the importance of being responsible for others. If you don’t show up or if you aren’t prepared, then the whole community won’t rise to the level that it potentially could. It also teaches kids the benefits of having a practice in the arts even if you don’t pursue it professionally. It shows kids how to find joy in being creative."

How do you see the role of jazz education organizations like YLJC in fostering a sense of community?

"In our world of social media and AI, jazz education organizations like YLJC serve the role of getting kids away from distractions and uniting them in a collaborative, creative effort. They teach kids how to have fun in a more wholesome, authentic, and unfiltered way. This creates the type of community that lasts."

You released your debut album in 2022. Can you tell us about that project?

"That project is called "The Game." Each song is a tone parallel between music and the game of chess, as presented by a music legend. It was my first attempt at distilling an abstract concept through music, which I felt fitting to do considering it was initially a school project! Now it’s been released internationally!"

What advice would you give to aspiring YLJC jazz drummers and musicians based on your experiences touring with Matthew Whitaker?

"If you love jazz, no matter what happens, stay committed! Through serious highs and lows, it’s the commitment to playing the best music I can that has gotten me here, and I love where I am. Stay humble, stay grateful, and take advantage of every moment that you spend with your instrument. You never know where it might take you! Music took me here, to Paris, where I’m currently writing this, and maybe it could take you to your dream city too, but you won’t know unless you stay committed!"

Follow Johnny Steele: Instagram | Facebook | Email


To purchase tickets to Matthew Whitaker Quintet at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center on Dec 10, visit


Matthew Whitaker (piano & Hammond B3 organ)

Marcos Robinson (guitar)

Liany Mateo (acoustic and electric bass)

Ivan Llanes (percussion)

Johnny Steele (drums)

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