The news that John Geggie is stepping down after more than 20 years as artistic director of JazzWorks made me think back to the first time I went to jazz camp. It was1999. I was writing an article on camp for The Citizen (which paid my way: thanks again, guys) but also brought my trumpet. The experience moved me, as it has moved countless others, and I had the added benefit of interviewing campers and faculty to get their perspective on it.The one who provided the key line for the article was John Geggie. “You don't teach jazz,” he observed, “you share it.”
There were 62 campers sharing it that weekend at Christie Lake and 10 faculty. The faculty included Frank Lozano, Julie Michels, Jim Lewis, Jean Martin, Rob Frayne, Kim Ratcliffe and Nancy Walker. The more observant of you will notice that those same faculty members were still teaching at camp 15 years later. Others, who came along a year or so later, like Christine Duncan, Dave Restivo and Kevin Barrett come back every year too. They braved spartan conditions at Christie Lake, in the early days, endured long drives from Toronto or Montreal and were not not, let’s say, overpaid for doing so.
Why? Well, John Geggie was not the only reason, but he was a big one. As artistic director of JazzWorks from its inception in 1994, Geggie had the largest impact on the direction the camp would take. He gave it an educational direction, a musical personality, an artistic integrity. Plus he played and taught bass wonderfully.
Those have seen him teach up close are quick with praise. Here’s Alrick Huebener, a bassist who has attended many jazz camps: “John brings an inspiring combination of high skill, discipline, creativity, humility, affection for the struggles of students and humour to any teaching situation.
“He always began by polling us before camp about our needs and interest,” Alrick recalls. “He then proposed an approach that allowed us to address those issues as well as learn about things we had never thought about before. Some of the workshops were quite challenging, like have a dozen bassists stand in a circle and pass along a few bars of a walking bass line or a solo to each other while trying to maintain the continuity of the song. We set it up so we learned from him and learned from each other. Such sessions were intense, interesting and a bucket full of fun.”
Now, after more than 20 years of it, having listened to two thousand demo tapes, endured what must seem like two million board meetings, explained things patiently a million times, John is stepping down as artistic director, although there is a good chance he will continue as a faculty member and bass instructor.
To say that he will be missed as artistic director is a massive understatement. Camp runs so smoothly that it is easy to underestimate the contribution that those who run it make. As artistic director, Geggie decides on the program and the content. He picks the faculty members and consults with them on workshops and other program details. He decides on the make-up of the combos formed at camp (and handles the complaints from those who fear they wound up in the wrong one).
Long ago, the folks who started the camp (Geggie, Rob Frayne, Jean Martin, Judy Humenick and Tena Palmer) decided that they wanted it to be not like other camps. JazzWorks would welcome adults as well as students. It would stress small-group improvisation, as opposed to big-band precision. It would encourage open-ness in the music, including the freer kind of jazz. It would nudge the fearful to play, the set-in-their-ways to experiment. If you are reading this, you are likely among those who know first-hand how well this has all worked.
Part of John Geggie’s genius lies in being able to recognize and seek out teachers who would enjoy and nurture the camp aesthetic. A characteristic they all share — a rare one — is the ability to be patient and encouraging with beginners, coupled with a determination to demand that the more advanced players be better — in a nice way, of course.
That first camp in 1999, I walked into a beginning improvisation workshop led by Geggie and watched him at work. He sat at a keyboard in the dining hall at Christie Lake and played a major chord. "See if you can sing Joy to the World on that chord," he asked a vocalist who had said she didn't understand chords. She sang two bars. "See," said Geggie, "you sang in context. You sang in the key. The importance is that you heard that song. You were playing by ear, which is a beautiful thing.”
That’s one side. Here’s the other, recounted by Alrick Huebener, an advanced player: “Once, when I was in the rhythm section for a jam in the Boathouse, I thought we we were really cooking, providing good support for each of the horn soloists who played in succession. I mean, the rhythm section played in time, followed the changes and each soloist seemed happy with it. We did not fall apart or otherwise screw up. At the end of the tune, we smiled, generally satisfied that disaster had been avoided. John, the presiding faculty at the jam, stepped up and informed us that something was wrong with the rhythm section.
“We were surprised. He let us know that the rhythm section was solid, but unvarying between soloists, a kind of Band in the Box accompaniment that was competent but uninteresting. We had not changed our playing to match the style and personality of each soloist. We felt badly. Our moment of competence had less lustre than we thought. Our musical sheen was diminished. But he was right. He was letting us know about the next aesthetic level in improvisation, the need to really listen to who we are playing with and adjust to them in what we play and how we play it. I still thank John for that lesson and realize the point of a lot of practicing in jazz is to give yourself the listening skills and musical vocabulary to respond in the moment.”
Those are two sides of the JazzWorks camp aesthetic. Geggie had an instinct for knowing which faculty members, Canadian and U.S. guests, got it, which ones should be invited back. He found them, hired them, listened to them, welcomed their ideas. He did trouble-shooting on their behalf when problems arose. As a result, he received a strong loyalty from them. When you talk to faculty members, you quickly realize how much they love this particular camp. They like the setting, they like hanging out with each other, they like the campers, they love playing together. But the musical atmosphere John Geggie creates is a big part of it.
Nick Fraser, Toronto drummer and long-time faculty member, says it well: “John has been a great teacher and leader for us at jazz camp. Thoughtful, energetic, loyal, considerate and always willing to listen to our input. When I first started teaching at camp, I don't think I really knew what I was in for, since working with the adult students with varied skill levels that jazz camp serves takes a special hand. John is a master of this type of teaching as he can be firm without being mean and offers truly constructive criticism. I've learned a lot from him.”
It’s a bit of a mutual admiration society, the faculty and John Geggie. “The faculty has always been inspiring for me,” Geggie says. “I have learned so much and I have always looked forward to learning from faculty and participants every year and I hope to continue doing so.”
For a person whose influence has been so strongly positive, Geggie spends little time in the spotlight. He doesn’t grandstand. His speeches, if any, are short and on the laconic side. He is just as likely to say “Nice shirt” as “Great chorus!” At the faculty concerts, his are the shortest solos.
So it is little surprise that when he is asked to sum up his time at camp, Geggie responds with a typical blend of optimism and realism. “What I hope camp has become is a 'check-up' or reality check for folks at all levels of their interest in improvised music. If folks have come away challenged, inspired and/or pushed to go farther, then I am pleased.”
Be pleased, John. And thanks for sharing jazz.
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About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.