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A look at Lakewood High School’s 54th Avenue South jazz combo

Gina Marks



The 54th Avenue South combo. Erik Hempel, left, Nick Love, Charlee Loyst, Ernest Houston, Tristan Nelson, Jack Willett.

St. Petersburg is often recognized for its vibrant arts scene: Murals, museums, live music, and almost everything in between can be found throughout the city. One notable group of high school students has the talent and dedication to contribute to this scene: Lakewood High School’s 54th Avenue South jazz combo.

Under the direction of Michael Kernodle, the 54th Avenue South Jazz Combo came to life. This year’s group consists of Charlee Loyst (piano), Nick Love (drums), Erik Hempel (bass), Ernest Houston (trombone), Tristan Nelson (saxophone) and Jack Willet (trumpet). The band has performed throughout the Pinellas County area, including the Mahaffey Theater and the Clearwater Jazz Festival. These students often perform in larger combos as well with Kernodle’s other jazz students – one of the most recent being a pop-up performance at the Sundial, for the St. Petersburg Festival of the Arts.

Michael Kernodle has been working with these six students since their start in the Lakewood band program. While he lives in Tampa, Kernodle makes the considerable drive every day to give these students the best musical education he can. He shares some of his own experiences, perspectives, and a bit of the 54th combo’s history here:

What’s your favorite part about teaching music? About directing?

My favorite part is making the music come alive. The process of making ink on a piece of paper become a living form of art is a very unique, one-of-a-kind experience between musicians. We all bring our imagination, creativity and experiences to the table and share with one another. It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the position of the director. Although it can be a lot of pressure bringing it all together, it’s well worth it.

What instruments do you play?

I started with piano at the age of 6, then went to learn trumpet and French horn. I also play a bit of violin – but I rarely advertise that information … I’m far from a virtuoso!

How long have you been teaching? 

I have been teaching for 18 years in public and private schools. Each year has presented a opportunity to direct various ensembles. I have taught in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

What started the 54th Avenue South combo?

Our program actually started with just a few students interested in starting a small jazz combo. It was a big hit that soon morphed into several ensembles, including the Jazz Big Band (known as the Lakewood Jazz Ensemble). One of the very successful stand-out combos was named after the street Lakewood resides on: 54th Ave S.

How long has the combo been around?

This is the 5th year for this particular combo. I’ve been at Lakewood for eight years now.

The Lakewood High School big band jazz combo performs at the SunDial, for the Festival of the Arts.


A few words with sophomore Charlee Loyst:

What is your favorite part of being in the 54th Avenue South jazz combo?

The best part about combo for me is getting more opportunities to play solos in songs, whereas in big band I don’t have the chance to improvise as much.

What is your favorite event that you have done?

My favorite event I’ve done with the combo was playing at the Mahaffey Theater.

Why do you play the instrument you play?

I play piano because it’s fun to play and I have the most experience with it.

How long have you been playing jazz?

I’ve been playing jazz for one and a half years and piano for 10 years.

What got you started?

I got started playing jazz because initially my mom got me interested. I learned all the fundamentals of jazz and started listening to jazz composers, which I began to enjoy more and more. When I put new music I learned to my instrument, I became even more motivated. I’ve always thought jazz music was cool, but now that I’m playing it, I enjoy it even more.


The group has just released its second CD,  Southside Groove, featuring performances of jazz classics and original works written by the students themselves. They’ll perform live Dec. 15 at the St. Petersburg College Gibbs Campus.

The CD is available online, at Lakewood High School, the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, and at the St. Petersburg City Hall. Cost is $10 – with a $5 shipping and handling fee for online purchases.

To learn more or to donate to the Lakewood High School band programs, visit

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