Chicago Jazz Magazine
Ahhh, those summer days! They make me think of freedom and fun and an escape from the constraints of the classroom.
As a high school jazz student, after music had become the focal point in my life, I recall summers meaning I had a lot more time to practice and listen to records. In the morning I would hurry to get my daily English Comprehension Workbook assignment done. My Mom couldn’t bear the thought of my complete freedom from schoolwork, but the rest of the day was mine and I certainly had plans for it.
I recall one summer when every morning I would play two or three Sonny Stitt records that Iâ€™d gotten my hands on. I’d listen to every note and then start the record over again. This is such a vivid memory for me because of the nerdy-cum-cool ritual I’d established â€“ English comprehension, then jazz comprehension.
The great thing about having my summer freedom to pursue jazz was that no one was monitoring me, pushing me, testing me. I was able to ENJOY the “learning” that I had chosen to do totally on my own. Little did I know that I was actually studying! I guess the course could’ve been called Jazz as a Second Language.
The fact that there was ostensibly absolutely nothing to gain from my Sonny Stitt obsession other than self-enjoyment, satisfaction and perhaps more musical self-motivation makes the activity still seem a bit odd to me, or at least a rather interesting pursuit for a teenager. However (and also unbeknownst to me), this self-motivation is the most pure way and perhaps the only effective means by which to pursue the personal work of learning to play jazz music.
The following summer I learned about a jazz camp in New Jersey that I decided I wanted to go to. My parents agreed, and so I attended with another jazz student/high school buddy of mine. I think it was around a two-week stay. When I look back, the desire to go away to further immerse myself in a chosen interest seems like a pretty passionate thing to do. But jazz music had incited (and still does to this day) such emotion in me that this was simply my response to those feelings: to meet them equally.
That summer trip was great! A time away from my parents (and chores and workbooks) and a way to reaffirm my passion by being with peers who felt the same ways I did about music. Since then I’ve learned that there’s nothing better for establishing an inner comfort level than being around people who are basically just like you. There will usually be others in the group that will allow you to stand out or to be invisible, according to your needs. Which reminds me that it was at this jazz camp that I met what I believed at the time was the epitome of a jazz-obsessed teenager. This guy, pianist Dave Kikoski, was way more far-gone about jazz than me. It stands to reason that he is a great player today. He already was then. But it’s also funny for me to think that the realization of my own sense of balance in my young life was somehow a necessary and soothing thing for me to feel at the time.
The camp was arranged typically; like a cross between a sleep-away camp with a jazz-education curriculum. My guitar teacher was a guy named Ritchie Hart. I remember that he had studied with George Benson and so that fact alone probably made the price of admission seem worth it to me. Another instructor who made a great impression on me at the camp was drummer, John Riley. I’ve always adored a good drummer, and boy could he swing! He went on to play with John Scofield and the Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (formerly the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra). So it’s good to know that aesthetically I was already onto something that I could translate between vinyl and flesh. That jazz comprehension home schooling was working!
The other thing that I remember about the camp was the lack of pressure on me to excel in an academic sense. Because there were no grades and no accreditation involved, I was present to enjoy a getaway, which at its core was centered on the instructional, performance and social aspects of jazz music. Unlike a music conservatory or university, I was not beholden to my long-term education; there was no institution or administration requiring that I meet any official standards. Any measuring of excellence came in the form of level placement in performance classes and ensembles. This indirect grading system established a hierarchy among the musicians involved and provided the motivation that I needed as a serious music student to practice and to advance my craft.
The process of self-motivating via comparing and contrasting is a key component to the progress of the developing jazz musician and is encountered early on as they begin to excel. It is also an issue that they have to learn to reconcile personally due to the emotional baggage that it can produce. Often, learning to maintain a healthy balance of humility and fire in the belly is what makes for the biggest strides in learning and contributing for musicians. The capacity for balanced responses to situations that will affect our perception of self can be the difference between faith and determination and fear and giving up. The need to maintain a balance of this nature never really goes away for the jazz musician, regardless of how far along they are in their career. Imagine, for example, how Sonny Rollins felt when John Coltrane usurped his place among the jazz media as jazz’s premier saxophonist.
The jazz camp can be the perfect way for a student to become thoroughly familiar with and involved in the social and performance areas of the jazz milieu, while also partaking in valuable instruction in an informal classroom setting. With a more casual approach to learning jazz, and through group activity and interaction, jazz camps foster the most important kind of inspiration and motivation for the developing jazz musician.