Gilbert Castellanos: Keeping Jazz Alive Through Future Generations

By Karla Amador

Renowned Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos is San Diego’s very own jazz hero. Taking time off isn’t likely—if he’s not curating a jazz event with a major art and cultural institution, he’s mentoring the next generation of jazz musicians.

Originally from Guadalajara, Mexico, his family headed North and settled in Fresno, California where his father introduced him to the trumpet when he was a child.

Castellanos went on to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, one of the most prestigious jazz schools in the country.

But San Diego was the city where he truly made his mark. Jazz fans took notice of his exceptional skills at playing the trumpet and he was even encouraged to leave San Diego, and move back east to further his career, but he didn’t see it that way.


“I knew there was a purpose for me to stay here [in San Diego], and I wasn’t planning to move and give up on my dream,” said Castellanos.

Word got out when he began playing nightly jazz jams from midnight to four in the morning at El Campo Ruse near Barrio Logan. 

“This was before internet and cell phones and it spread like a wild fire,” he said. 

Flash forward to 2011, he reached out to the San Diego Symphony leadership and presented the idea of an inaugural jazz series, dubbed “Jazz at The Jacobs.” The first two of four nights he curated for this first-time program were sellouts, and he was asked to curate four more nights of world-class jazz for the Symphony’s Bayside Summer Nights series.

Today, in addition to his work with the Symphony, Castellanos produces and curates numerous musical projects all year round—Friday’s at the Westgate Hotel Plaza Bar and their Sunset Poolside Jazz series; 5.5 hours of music at Panama 66 every Wednesday; Portraits in Jazz concert series for the San Diego Museum of Art; commissioned jazz compositions and arrangements as Resident Composer for the San Diego Ballet, among many others. 


Castellanos (left) with the Young Lions

But if there is one project that he cherishes most of all, it’s the Young Lions. The Young Lions series was something personal for Castellanos; he had the chance to play with Dizzy Gillespie as a teenager, and he wanted to provide the opportunity for middle and high school students to see a future in jazz and be mentored. This is why he founded the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory.

In August 2017, the Young Lions Jazz Conservatory was launched. The focus is on educational components such as jazz theory, history, cultural context latin/afro/Brazilian rhythms, and master classes with internationally recognized musicians. It’s been his ambition to offer young musicians unique experiences in jazz education, and a way to pass the baton for the future of this American art form because that’s how he was taught to play, and how he grew—learning among many greats.

“My hope is to keep jazz alive and to educate and mentor the next generation of jazz musicians in this city,” he said.