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Tony Peebles, a 2003 College graduate, plays saxophone for the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, a 19-piece Latin Big Band based out of San Francisco that won a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album.

Credit: Courtesy of Tony Peebles

If you asked Tony Peebles to describe his life plan when he was a student, he would have summoned images of stiff suits, courtrooms and bar exams. Today, he is a Grammy award-winning musician.

Peebles, a 2003 College graduate, plays saxophone for the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, a 19-piece Latin Big Band based out of San Francisco. The band won the Best Tropical Latin Album Grammy, against more prominent artists like Marc Anthony.

His parents were actually quite pleased with their son’s decision to shift directions early on, Peebles said. Both were musicians — his dad a classical cellist and jazz bassist, and his mom a symphony violinist. He had grown up with music but was never pushed into it. Still, perhaps his dad’s “deep distrust of lawyers,” as Peebles termed it, provided a gentle shove.

At 9 years old , Peebles picked up the saxophone at his public school in Ontario, Canada. He excelled in every band he joined, eventually sitting next to college graduates as a junior in high school.

But it wasn’t until college that he began to appreciate music beyond the adrenaline rush of a performance. It was no longer enough to squeeze his passion into a six credit minor, so he decided to become a music major instead.

“It was like life was in the way between me and practicing,” Peebles said . He credits music professor Guthrie Ramsey with changing “the whole trajectory of [his] life.”

Peebles took several classes with Ramsey after having first met him at a pre-orientation program. Ramsey remembered how Peebles’ “curiosity grew and he just began to explore a lot of different avenues for his creativity.”

One of those avenues was becoming a founding member of Ramsey’s band, Musicology.

“We were band mates,” Ramsey said. “He was the first college student I had a professional relationship with as well [as a teacher-student one].”

Peebles’ also taught Ramsey’s History of Jazz class during Ramsey’s leave and remembers the “adventure” of teaching a lecture with over 70 students only three to four years his junior.

“He was equally musically talented and intellectually gifted… and not willing to compromise on either level,” Ramsey added.

Peebles moved to the Bay Area in California, right before joining the Pacific Mambo Orchestra in 2010. He said he was “in the right place at the right time,” subbing for another saxophonist at their second gig ever.

In those early days playing at a salsa club for “three people in the audience” where they didn’t make enough money to cover the cost of highway tolls, no one quite thought they would make it this far, PMO co-founder Steffen Kuehn said.

Gig by gig, they built up a following, eventually raising $11,000 to fund their debut album released in 2012. Soon they were picked up by a booking agency in New York, Columbia Artists Management, that hadn’t represented an artist from the Bay Area since the 1980s, Kuehn said. This led to their first 14 city tour, just a couple weeks before their Grammy nomination was released.

That was when Kuehn realized “we tapped into something that’s big.” He attributed this breakthrough to the positive chemistry of the group.

“There is no ego in this band,” Kuehn said.

“[Peebles] sounds like Tony Peebles and he doesn’t sound like anybody else,” Kuehn added. “He always contributed to the harmony.”

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