Stepping Out

Student-organized jazz combo finds its groove

Charlie Qin/Special to the Town Crier
The Jazz Factor includes, clockwise from bottom left, Max Lee (piano), Bryan Wang (alto saxophone), Ajay Madala (electric and upright bass), Katelyn Chen (vocals), Brendan Wong (tenor saxophone) and Ethan Fong (drums). Not pictured: Neil Ramaswamy (drums).

Jazz is not often explored in the classroom, nor is it a common genre for young teens to groove to. That’s what makes The Jazz Factor different from many other teen bands.

The group features seven high school students, among them pianist Max Lee of Los Altos. Formed in 2017, the band also includes Bryan Wang (alto saxophonist), Brendan Wong (tenor saxophonist), Ethan Fong (drummer), Katelyn Chen (vocals), Ajay Madala (electric and upright bassist) and Neil Ramaswamy (drummer).

The Jazz Factor’s mission is to spread its passion for jazz by performing at events in Los Altos and beyond. It has played at several First Friday events in downtown Los Altos and at the Los Altos Village Association’s St. Paddy’s Day Beer Stroll in March. The band has also committed to performing Friday night at LAVA’s Downtown Los Altos Wine Stroll.

“Los Altos is probably our longest-running venue. This is something that is relatively casual (and) relaxed,” Wang said. “The people are clapping a lot. They were pretty happy and laughing. There were people who were syncing with our singer (Chen). These are people who we would definitely have not interacted with ever if it wasn’t for jazz.”

Wang, who founded the group, is a junior at The Harker School in San Jose. All but Fong (who attends The Nueva School in San Mateo) are also students at Harker.

Wong was the first musician to join Wang in The Jazz Factor. Although they were enrolled in jazz band at school, Wang said they wanted to create a more personalized jazz combo that they could conduct instead of their teachers.

“We played together so much in school and in jazz band and even after school, we jammed together,” said Wong, a junior. “And we thought, we might as well get some gigs outside of school. That would be sick, right? It’s like a little rock band.”

Wang and Wong reached out to other jazz enthusiasts, such as Ramaswamy and junior Lee, who both soon joined the group.

“It was a different way to explore something that we were all similarly passionate about,” senior Ramaswamy said.

After “managing to scrap together a set list of maybe five or six songs,” Wang said, the band performed anywhere it could, “including an open house and a wine and cheese reception.”

The Jazz Factor grew to seven members last spring when Chen, Fong and Madala came onboard.

To prepare for their performances, the members practice together three to four times a month and even more in the summer (three to four hours per week). Ramaswamy said the rehearsals are usually a casual outlet for members to have fun making music.

Along with playing traditional jazz pieces that people might expect to hear – such as “All of Me” and “There Will Never Be Another You” – Ramaswamy said they also perform pop, hip-hop and classical songs they’ve transformed into jazz music.

“I wouldn’t say that we explore just one section of jazz,” Ramaswamy said, “but rather we interact with nearly a hundred years of jazz history.”

Overcoming obstacles

Rejection is also part of being in a band, and The Jazz Factor has experienced that more than once. Wang recounted the day of the St. Paddy’s Day Beer Stroll when one of the venues canceled on them due to rain. Soaked from tie to boots, they approached the owner of every nearby store and restaurant to ask if they wanted live music.

“We handled 19 rejections, and we just had to keep trying until, hopefully, one of them will take us in,” Wang said.

Their persistence paid off – Peet’s Coffee & Tea accepted their offer to perform.

“At this point, rejection doesn’t hold (us) down,” Wang said. “You have to learn to understand that rejection is just a ‘no,’ and, at the end of the day, a ‘no’ doesn’t change anything.”

Beyond sharing their love for jazz, the group has also raised approximately $1,500 for the Pacific Autism Center for Education in the Santana Row Benefit Concert and approximately $3,000 for the Friends of Children with Special Needs in the Music and Hope Benefit Concert. They have also played at benefits for Ronald McDonald House and Magical Bridge.

No matter where The Jazz Factor performs, its members relish the connection they make with the audience.

“The part that is important to us is (that) there’s people walking by, complete strangers,” Wang said. “Some of them walk by, and they just listen to us and keep on going. But some of them stop and spend anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes just sitting down and listening to us.”

For more information on the band, visit

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