From the classroom to the big stage: Alaska surprises HBCU students with trip to legacy Monterey Jazz Festival

Photos by Ingrid Barrentine

When Texas Southern University Student Braylon Walker is performing his bass instrument on stage, his eyes are locked on the audience—making sure they’re connecting with his music and that it’s bringing them joy.

“I’ve wanted to be not just a musician but an entertainer,” said Braylon. “I love getting up there, letting people have a good time and understand the story I’m trying to tell.”

This weekend, Braylon will tell a story through his music at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the longest-running jazz festival in the world.

Braylon, a Texas Southern University (TSU) jazz performance major, is not going alone. Alaska surprised Braylon and about 40 HBCU choir and jazz students from TSU and Morgan State University with an all-expenses paid trip to the festival where they’ve been invited to perform.

For a lot of us, this is the first time going to a big jazz festival,” Braylon said. “Some people have never been on a plane or could never have afforded it. I’m one of those people. I’m super grateful.”

During their flight from Washington D.C. to San Francisco, Alaska Customer Service Agent and recording artist Lauren “Ruby Woo” Brown suddenly broke out in song mid-flight. Moments later, the MSU choir and jazz ensemble students joined Lauren and serenaded guests with the song “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” [Download video]

When we learned how much it would cost to fly students to the Monterey Jazz Festival, there was no doubt in our minds that we wanted to ensure there were no barriers to attending one of the best music festivals on the West Coast,” said David Tucker, Managing Director of Public Affairs in California. “We want this experience to be the beginning of many firsts, with stories that will be shared for years to come.”

Customer Service Agent Lauren singing onboard with Morgan State University’s choir & jazz ensemble students.

And, look out ’cause here’s Texas Southern:

Meanwhile, guests boarding their flight from Houston to Monterey also enjoyed an unexpected live performance by TSU students. [Download video]

Texas Southern University students singing at Alaska Gate C16E in Houston on their way to The Monterey Jazz Festival.

We had one more surprise for the students. The musically gifted group learned they would fly on the specially designed Our Commitment plane from Washington D.C. to Monterey. In 2021, the livery was created with UNCF to show Alaska Airlines’ joint commitment to education and advancing racial equity.

I’m excited that we can use the gift of flight to bring students to Monterey for this legendary event,” said Alaska Airlines CEO Ben Minicucci, who also serves on the UNCF Board of Directors. “Our ongoing support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities is one of the ways that we are living our commitment to advancing education and inclusion. We want our airline to be a place where everyone belongs, and we know we’re stronger when everyone has equal opportunity and a seat at the table.”


Texas Southern University
Senior,  Jazz Ensemble Major, Bass player

What does it mean to you and your classmates to go to a festival like this? Not just to attend, but to perform? It’s super meaningful. It means a lot to see what we can become by looking at the people who’ve gone before us and for them to talk to us and reassure us that it can (sic) happen. It makes me feel like the path I’m choosing, the path I’ve spent seven years of my life trying to do, is coming to fruition. It’s happening.

How do you feel about the fact that we are supporting not just students, this next generation, but HBCUs? We’re more than thankful and feel very blessed to have that kind of relationship with many people who want to help us out or open the door to go to these types of venues. I’m blessed you guys are allowing it to happen to us.

What’s the sentiment with the rest of the choir and jazz ensemble students? The art form we want to be in can’t be done to heart inside a classroom. You have to live in the music to be able to make the music. You’ve got to feel it, you’ve got to live inside it, you got to know where this stuff is coming from, and there’s no better way to do it than going to where it’s at – living in the streets of it and hearing it every day when you wake up. 

What are you hoping to get out of the festival? First and foremost, I want to put on a good show. I want to show people that we got the stuff for it. And, my favorite singer Kurt Elling is there, and I want to give him a high five.

After this, what are you hoping for in your musical career? I finally got this urge, maybe a year ago, to dedicate myself to music, so I want to do that. I want to start going to the studio, to create, to collaborate with people. I want to do a podcast. I want all of it. I’m finally reassured that this is something I want to live in.