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Countdown to the Grammys: Band camp - on a major scale

Staples Center is bustling with activity ahead of Sunday’s Grammy Awards. Red carpets are being rolled out, producers are going over the run of the show, and chart-topping artists are polishing their performances.

Just two miles away, in USC’s Grand Ballroom, another type of Grammy-related rehearsal is taking place. The music director for Latin superstar Juanes stands in the middle of a seven-piece band giving its members pointers on how to play “Me Enamora.” However, the musicians intently running through the track aren’t employed by the Grammy-winning singer. In fact, they haven’t even graduated from high school yet.

The musicians are courtesy of Grammy Camp — Jazz Session, a program dedicated to mentoring young players and teaching them the ins and outs of the music industry. The 32 high-schoolers came from around the country last week, sponsored by the Grammy Foundation, to learn from seasoned veterans such as Juanes — and to play various shows leading up to Sunday’s ceremony.

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Grammy Camp — Jazz Session is one of the handful of learning initiatives offered by the foundation. Another is Grammy in the Schools, which raises money for music education in classrooms, which increasingly has lost public funding.

The foundation was established in 1989 “to cultivate the understanding, appreciation and advancement of the contribution of recorded music to American culture,” but the nonprofit hasn’t been immune to criticism, especially during C. Michael Greene’s controversial leadership of the Grammys from 1988 to 2002, when the way charitable funds were spent was called into question.

Today, the foundation has living proof of its work. At USC, the Grammy campers will play two shows: One for more than 800 L.A-area high school students and another with Juanes.

In between songs at the rehearsal, two lanky guitarists nervously tune their instruments, a professional background singer helps a student with enunciation of the Spanish-language lyrics while a saxophonist ogles the oversized Grammy replica that towers over one side of the stage. The music director helps a nervous drummer find the rhythm on congas.

During their 10 days in L.A., the teens will undergo more intensive music training from even more industry professionals. They’ll appear on CBS’ “omg! Insider,” record an album that will be issued through EMI Music and, of course, attend the Grammys.

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And as with other musicians, they’ll experience the joy of swag.

Shortly after their arrival Friday, Grammy campers Adrian Cota and Frederic Griggs surveyed the rows of bronze and gold-plated cymbals that lined the wall of the music company Zildjian in Burbank.

They were adding their names to a list of musicians, including multiplatinum drummers Adrian Young of No Doubt and Travis Barker of Foo Fighters, who have visited the appointment-only facility for equipment.

The two teen drummers took turns banging on the metal discs with their drumsticks, smiling wide when the crashing noises were to their liking.

With virtual carte blanche in the shop, their selections (which cost upward of $500 each) would be theirs to keep. Zildjian, one of the camp’s sponsors, will also send a cymbal to each participant’s school.

Griggs struggled to hide his excitement. “I’ve never even been out of my time zone,” laughed the senior from Carlisle, Pa. He then stepped outside, where a chauffeur arrived in a black Mercedes-Benz to cart him and Cota back to their hotel.

Grammy Camp — Jazz Session started in 1993, and its alum include singer-pianist Peter Cincotti, New York Philharmonic bassist David Grossman, pianist Aaron Parks and Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Gerald Clayton. Each year, students are selected through an application process that includes uploading a video audition to YouTube.

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David Sears, executive education director for the Grammy Foundation, says the camps — there also are summer incarnations in L.A. and New York and a basic training career day — are about taking students beyond what they are exposed to in school.

“What about those students who are really serious about wanting to explore a career in music? How could we give them a leg up,” Sears said. “Grammy Camp is about that next step and giving some in-depth instruction over a nine- or 10-day period.

“It’s better that they find out at 16 or 17 that they don’t want to pursue music than knock their head against the wall at 35 looking for a change.”

Jazz session participants are also eligible for more than $2 million in scholarships through the Grammy Foundation’s college partners: the Berklee College of Music, the Manhattan School of Music, the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and USC’s Thornton School of Music. Students can also return to inspire future participants and play in the Grammy camp alumni band.

At the Embassy Suites near LAX, where the students are staying, they rehearse under the tutelage of Justin DiCioccio of the Manhattan School of Music, Leila Heil of the University of Colorado Boulder and Ron McCurdy of USC’s Thornton School of Music.

In one ballroom, DiCioccio runs the jazz session band through a series of rigorous exercises. “Is everybody cool on the form? Whenever I do this, it’s like a cue,” he says as he throws his left hand in the air and gives it a quick flick.

It’s an invaluable primer for Griggs, who is hoping to study under DiCioccio in Manhattan this fall.

“He’s like the guy for jazz education. It’s incredible to hear him talk and hear all the different analogies he uses and techniques for teaching,” said Griggs, who has been playing drums since he was 7. “He helps you understand time and how you feel the music.”

Across the lobby, Heil is helping the seven-piece choir tighten up its harmonies on “Jeannine,” and around the corner, Cota and the members of the jazz combo are moving through “Night in Tunisia.”

Between the three groups, 17 tunes will be perfected, not counting the pieces the musicians are learning for their performances with Juanes and Sandoval. Nine tracks will be recorded over two days at Capitol.

Nathan Heldman, a senior at the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, first learned about the camp when he went to a Grammy in the Schools Live! concert. Four years later, the choir tenor will perform there.

“Being exposed to that many talented people at the same time is great for your own musicality,” he said. “That’s why I auditioned for this chance. It’s really nice to have an emphasis in jazz and be able to have that in high school, because I know a lot of kids don’t get that.”

Back in the ballroom, the students are working through the six-song set for Wednesday’s Grammy in the Schools Live! program. The dust had settled and you could see the steel in the eyes of the student band.

Cota got instruction in Spanish from Juanes’ director and Griggs let out a small grin when he found his groove on the pair of shiny red conga drums. The band was ready for another take, as one of the student vocalists took her place to run through the lyrics.

But first, simple words of encouragement from McCurdy, who watched from the audience: “You’re a star.”

gerrick.kennedy@latimes.com

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