Tuesday, August 24, 2010

University of Manitoba Summer Session Jazz Camp

Last week, after a satisfying summer spent in the sleepy solitude of a quiet hamlet known as Times Square, New York City, I hopped easily onto two bumpy Delta flights and journeyed back to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I mentioned in an earlier post that I won a teaching position at the University of Manitoba last year. The University school year runs basically from September to April; however, in the middle of August is the Summer Session Jazz Camp which is very popular in Winnipeg and open to musicians of all ages. This was my first time teaching at this camp and I was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.

Steve Kirby
Jimmy Greene
The students at the Jazz Camp were primarily high school students, although there were younger and also much older. (One man had enrolled himself and his daughters as kind of an alternative summer vacation. I can see them during the slide show: "And here's pictures of us at the beach, and here's pictures of the whole family playing a Bb Blues!") And the budding jazz musicians were mostly beginners, but all were politely enthusiastic and attentive to the various classes, ensemble coaching, and master classes. The international faculty included yours truly on piano, Steve Kirby for double bass, Jimmy Greene for saxophone, Anna- Lisa Kirby for vocals, and newly-minted U of Manitoba drum prof Quincy Davis. Additional faculty included native Winnipeg musicians such as phenomenal pianist Will Bonness, precocious multi percussionist Curtis Novosad, and adroit alto saxophonist Neil Watson. Of course, there were many volunteers and administrators running around; I found them all particularly helpful because I was floating around to different classes, and could never seem to remember which room I was teaching in. There seemed to be an army of volunteers who were cheerfully ready-and-able: ready to escort me to my proper destination, and able to telepathically discern my need for coffee.

As a music educator, I have experience with all different levels of musicians. Beginners are always a challenge, however, beginning jazz musicians are a greater challenge for a number of reasons, the main one being that it's hard to make a beginning improvisor sound like he is playing music! Not only is the beginning jazz student most likely struggling with his or her instrument, they are struggling with these theoretical concepts like chord tones, lydian scales, song forms, and swing rhythm. Not to mention the issue that many younger players are not exposed to listening to jazz music; it's rarely on the radio or television these days. And this is a huge disconnect between jazz education and the typical student participation in the middle school or high school concert band: In a concert band, one can become an adequate to impressive player with no more homework than practicing one's instrument, while the jazz student is expected to, on top of practicing his instrument, having the time to listen to recordings and study all these new theoretical concepts. It can be extremely frustrating for the young jazz student, even if they come from a strong concert band experience, to feel some kind of success in this new arena. Nevertheless, I found the vast majority of the jazz campers to be keen on learning new skills and having fun in the process.(Make sure you pronounce "process" like a Manitoban: The "pro" sounds like how you would say " pro Basketball"........)

Dude, there are SOOOO many types of Metal.......
I like to try to learn from the students as much as they are supposed to be learning from me. I found myself asking the young Manitobans about their musical experiences. Although many of the pianists I worked with had listened to some jazz, some of the other instrumentalists were into other vast musical worlds. "Dude, there are SO many types of metal....Thrash Metal, Doom Metal, Speed Metal, Progressive Metal...", instructed one young electric bass player. I regretted that I left my Progressive Metal Fake Book in my other backpack.

There were some great master classes, which were usually mid-day: Steve Kirby had everybody come up on the stage and sing and clap together, and also spoke about obstacles to learning, such as fear of failure and personal distractions. Jimmy Greene gave an extremely enlightening lecture on the blues, as well as mentioning a recording by Jimmy Smith called Organ Grinder's Swing, and lauding it so swingingly descriptively that it made me want to go check it out! I described my master class as "doing what I normally do at home, which is just walk around the house and play different instruments." I premiered a samba-type tune that I wrote for my son entitled "Baby Liam's Bouncy Chair", which is one of the few tunes that I wrote this summer. Another master class was mostly questions from the campers and answers from the faculty, which culminated in a rousing performance by the faculty ensemble.

I reiterate that a camp such as this one is formidable, because you have to combine a lot of complex information and hopefully put it into practice during the week, while still making it fun and enjoyable. Not everyone in the camp will even go on to major in music, let alone become jazz musicians. But we want to give everyone a good experience with learning jazz, as well as creating a new audience: Hopefully all of the campers will go on to appreciate jazz more than they did before. There are no short cuts to becoming a jazz player, but there is a way to approach it that is gratifying in the short term and the long term. I think we accomplished that during the jazz camp, and I think we'll do even better next year.


  1. This sounds wonderful. In Michigan, we have the Interlochen music camp during the summer and one of my former guitar instructors teaches there, with some classes in jazz guitar. This type of venue is wonderful and inspiring for both amateur music students (folks who just "take lessons") and for those who major in music in college. I am glad to hear there is more of this going on.

  2. organ grinder's swing was extremely popular album in early sixties.

    In the mid sixties ,there was a guy in wpg for a while named Ralph Smith, who played a Hammond B3, here and there,

    who to my ears, was as good an organ player as Jimmy Smith.

    Older musicians in Winnipeg would certainly remember Ralph.

    Ralph invented a relay system that allowed him to play sax, from a keyboard.

    very nice blog


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