Safe place: A combo rehearsal with Ted Nash, 2009
I confess to trying to recruit musicians to jazz camp. When I hear new people at a jam session I often approach them and suggest that they would enjoy the JazzWorks summer jazz workshop (Aug. 15-18 this year). Most are interested but some express reservations, the most common being that they are not confident enough of their abilities, afraid they are getting in over their heads.
You may know people like that too. This article is aimed at them, so pass it on. (You could also refer them elsewhere on the website What to Expect which details the day-to-day life at camp.)
I’ve asked a number of people to talk about their first years at camp, their fears, their expectations and what they got out of it. Many of them went to camp far from experienced. Some had musical ability but little acquaintanceship with jazz, its structures, customs and vocabulary.
Well, as it turned out, they had come to the right place. Singer Betty Ann Bryanton first went to camp in 2006, classically trained but totally new to jazz. “In the vocal master classes, as a classically-trained vocalist I was likely more anxious than some of the others,” she says. “But the instructors, Julie Michels and Christine Duncan, didn't make me feel like I was so far off (which is how I felt when I listened to the others); they, instead, gave me immediate pointers to start me in my transformation from my classical sound to a sound more conducive to the jazz genre.”
Like all campers, Betty Ann was assigned to a combo that would perform in the closing concert. Her combo director was saxophonist Rémi Bolduc. “He is a real educator and leader (and funny, too!),” says Betty Ann, “and he led us all toward what we were trying to accomplish, so that it wasn't scary. When you're new to something having that level of instruction is really helpful, and also, confidence-building.”
I remember that feeling as well. When I first attended, in 1999, I had been playing trumpet for years but hadn’t performed in a long time and was more than a little daunted by the prospect of being surrounded by musicians who might be way better than me. Fortunately, I was assigned to a group of musicians more or less at my level, co-led by Rob Frayne and Kim Ratcliffe. They were loose and relaxed and accepting and gradually we became loose and relaxed too. Rather than rehearsing intensely, we spent a lot of time just playing, getting comfortable with the music and each other.
That quality of being accepting has impressed many other campers too and persuaded them to come back. Guitarist Pat Kelly made his first camp visit when he was in his 50s. “NO JUDGEMENTS!!,” he emphasizes, “just helpful, supportive guidance.”
Margaret Dalziel, a pianist with no jazz experience, was urged to attend camp by friends. “Although I had played a fair bit of classical piano, playing in a group, reading a lead sheet, playing by ear and syncopation were all foreign concepts,” she says.
She found out that “everyone was kind and encouraging, so I felt very safe. It was pretty intense, because I was learning a lot, but I came away with what I wanted: a path forward.”
That path included finding a teacher and making musical friends, which is an important common theme. The sharing of hard work, the musical highs and lows and the emotional impact of performing makes many combo mates friends for life. People in my combo at Christie Lake in 1999 are still close friends. Betty Ann speaks of a musical friendship with another combo-mate that continues after seven years (just listen to the affinity when she and Janet Hofstetter sing together).
Pat Kelly adds: “One has to emphasize to first-timers that a friendliness and camaraderie pervades the weekend, whether you're interacting with another ‘newbie’ or with a professional jazz musician from say, Toronto or New York.”
Some of that camaraderie appears at the camp jam sessions, which not everyone participates in but many do. I remember the first one I joined and the relief I felt after playing a couple of tunes and not embarrassing myself (as far as I could tell). That was exciting, and probably kept me from sleeping much that night (or the next).
For Betty Ann Bryanton, her first jam session was “scary and exciting at the same time. I really wanted to sing but I had no idea how it worked. Helen Glover, the Jam Session Queen, made it so easy for me. She explained what was expected of the vocalist (setting the tempo, working out the solos, setting the intros and outros). It was a lot to take in and learn, but she really REALLY helped me a lot.”
For the potential newcomer to camp, it’s reassuring to know the point of view of those doing the guiding. Trumpet instructor Jim Lewis has often worked with the less experienced musicians at camp. He writes: “Most music students, particularly those with limited experience in improvisation, tend to be painfully focused on their own limitations and can be easily intimidated, and so need to work within a safe and comfortable learning environment that reflects the joy inherent in the creation of art. In a small jazz ensemble, players (at any level) need to trust each other in order that all participants feel that it is safe to take some risk. I believe it is important that professionals understand how difficult this can be for beginners, and allow the students to be active participants in the creative process.”
Artistic director and bassist John Geggie has worked for 20 years at camp with newcomers to jazz. “I usually start off with encouraging folks to let go of inhibitions and not be afraid of trying things,” he writes. “It is good to be able to have a sense of what one can comfortably do (is one a good 'ear' player, can one pick up things quickly simply by listening? Or is one better at reading things?).
“A good place to start is rhythm; that involves playing and feeling time and groove together in an ensemble; this is a commonly shared experience between players of all kinds of music. Then I would start dealing with some simple melodic ideas and some key centers. It is better not to get too intensely involved with the 'theory' and 'scales' and rules. These are important things but I find if people are faced with a list of do's and don't's, they tend to be preoccupied about all the things one should avoid doing and actually are afraid to play. I like to encourage people to play and discover what is working in a certain context. We can then build on that and move to the next level of complexity.”
Jim Lewis believes that “a person with a limited vocabulary can, indeed, say the most profound things.” The faculty members are looking to identify the creativity of the students and to help them build their vocabulary to express the creativity better.
“I like to do the beginning ear training workshops to find out what different people are hearing and perceiving in the music,” writes John Geggie. “Playing certain chords and sounds in real time contexts can help demystify some things and empower the player to go farther with ideas. There are lots of great and groovy jazz tunes that are easy to learn by ear (C Jam Blues by Duke Ellington and Tenor Madness by Sonny Rollins are but two examples). I have actually done some things wherein I got the players to improvise on a Gregorian chant (certainly not jazz but definitely something in one key and something with a strong melodic content).”
Then, according to Jim Lewis, “musical solutions or options become more apparent to students once they gain some experience, and through positive feedback and encouragement at each step in that creative process they begin to understand how the artistic mindset can work.
“In my experience at the JazzWorks summer camp each group has its own personality, each group creates its own sound, whether with standard or original material, and each group member, no matter what their playing ability, contributes in some personal and significant way to each performance and feels ownership for their own ensemble.
“The students learn important lessons in self-expression and artistic satisfaction through the exploration of original compositions, arrangements and improvisation. Wonderful, unique, creative moments occur in each performance.”
Those unique moments help to create the well-known “JazzWorks buzz” — that feeling of euphoria that follows the final concert which campers take back with them, excited and encouraged to keep playing.
Different people take different things from the experience. Margaret Dalziel found that “where classical piano had seemed to be a study in isolation, jazz piano has been a wonderfully social journey.”
For Pat Kelly, “it's like a fun summer camp from when you were a kid, and yet you WILL learn something, whether you realize it's happening or not.”
And for Betty Ann Bryanton, “it’s definitely like diving into the unknown, but it was eye-opening and thrilling. I learned a ton and I was able to use this info to improve once I got home.”
As I said at the top, pass it on.
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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.