Jazzworks 2009: Jazz Boot Camp for Adults
Every year for the past 16 yearsfirst at Christie Lake Camp, located about 60 miles from Ottawa, Canada, but for the past four at the peaceful CAMMAC (Canadian Amateur Musicians Musiciens Amateurs du Canada) Lake MacDonald Music Centre, situated within spitting distance of the world-renowned Mont Tremblant Ski Resort in the Quebec LaurentiansJazzworks Ottawa puts on a three-day intensive jazz camp for players young and old, novice and advanced.
Lake MacDonald Music Center, CAMMAC
World class musicians, most from Canada but with occasional guests from the United States, convene to provide instructionranging from basics like how to improvise to more complex concepts like reharmonizationto players, some of whom are retirees who just want to get better, but also younger musicians who may be experienced on their instruments, but are encountering jazz for the first time. The goal, at the end of three days of intensive instructionthis year from August 20-23is for a series of ensembles (hand-picked by Jazzworks' core staff based on experience, degree of jazz knowledge and instrumentation) to meet, learn, rehearse and, finally, participate in a mammoth five-hour concert where everyone gets to play, everyone gets to solo, and everyone gets to feel great about it.
David Jones, now one of the retirees, has been coming to the camp for nearly all of its 16 years. "I came here the first year it started," he says, "and I missed about three or four years. I was a guitarist initially, and I switched to horn about six years ago. Most of the focus is on combos, so it's set up so that most of the time you get to play with people you've never met before. They match you up pretty closely with skill levels, but everyone has different backgrounds. I've met a lot of people here that I've carried on playing with during the rest of the year. You get a real sense of accomplishment by the end of the camp, because you've got a pretty short time to pick some tunes you're gonna play at the concert, and what's really neat are the kinds of arrangement ideas that come up.
"Most of the tunes are not terribly complex, they tend to be a lot of standards," Jones continues. "It's almost open-ended what you can do with them, so there's actually quite a lot of inventiveness that goes on during the weekend, and you can really see the evolution between the first couple of days and the final concert, which is absolutely amazing. In fact, one of the ones that everybody looks forward to is the beginner class, because you never know what they're gonna do, and because they're beginners sometimes they're extremely restricted in what kind of technical stuff they can play, but the faculty focuses on what you can do without a lot of technical knowledge. You can still do a lot of stuff that's inventive and has some musical integrity. You can just tell, by looking at the eyes of the people after their combos have finished; the people are ecstatic.
Combo Rehearsal, instructor Remi Bolduc (far right)
"The faculty changes periodically, occasionally you get different people, but the camp has evolved tremendously since the beginning. They refine it every year, and even in the last couple of years, for example, they've changed the way of doing the saxophone master classes, so it's really great now. There's much more activity; it's easy to fall into just a gab session, and no matter how great the ideas are, it doesn't replace doing them. They've also been pretty good, over the years, in responding to suggestions.
"The thing I find so attractive about this camp," Jones concludes, "is that the faculty are really good at taking what you can do now, and turning it into a performance that you feel great about. It's so easy to get overwhelmed with all the stuff you need to work on, and it's easy to loose sight of the fact that often, within what you've developed already, you're not exploiting it anywhere near its potential. This way you get a lot of really helpful ideas, because the faculty doesn't really get after you to point out all the things you can't do; they'll give you practical suggestions. It's a great setting, and it's neat seeing people of different ages. There was this red-haired, freckle-faced kid standing up at the mike; man, he was astounding!"
When Jazzworks was conceived 16 years ago, it consisted of a faculty of four. The 2009 edition featured a bevy of 16 mostly Canadian musicians, including bassist John Geggieone of the camp's founders, whose Geggie Concert Series each year at Ottawa's National Arts Centre provides a much needed infusion of programming throughout the yearand fellow Ottawan composer/arranger/Jazzworks cofounder Rob Frayne. From Toronto came guitarists Justin Haynes and Kevin Barrett, pianist Dave Restivo, trumpeter Jim Lewis, drummers Jean Martin and Nick Fraser and vocalists Christine Duncan and Julie Michels. From Montreal, saxophonists Remi Bolduc and Frank Lozano, as well as vocalist Sharada Banman and percussionist Aldo Mazza, rounded out the staff that also included Ottawa-born/New York-resident pianist Gordon Webster and, for the first time, New York saxophonist Ted Nash. The faculty represented a broad cross-section of jazz approaches, from left-of-center free jazz to down-the-center mainstream; what was remarkable, and was heard at the Saturday night Faculty Concert, is how they all adapted to situations that may have been out of their own comfort zones. At Jazzworks, even the teachers walk away with lessons learned and new relationships forged.
l:r: Jim Lewis, Judy Humenick, John Geggie
Behind the scenes, however, it's co-founder/Jazzworks coordinator Judy Humenick who was seen almost everywhere (seemingly at the same time) along with administrator Anna Frlan and technical coordinator Gavin McLintock, who made sure that every cabin and every room throughout the camp had all the instruments required, and that the sound for the Saturday evening Faculty Concert and Sunday afternoon combo performances looked and sounded great at Lake MacDonald's Lucy Hall.
"I was a singer, and a junior high school band director for 10 years while I was in Saskatchewan," says Humenick. "For three weeks every summer I was on the faculty of the Saskatchewan School of the Arts a teacher and there was a jazz week, where they came in...they brought in a whole faculty for a week, and high school jazz players from across the province came in and lived in a residence like this [CAMMAC]. They had absolutely marvelous faculty concerts and they also had great workshops. There were a number of local jazz musicians from Regina and Saskatoon, who would ask if they could come out to hear the faculty concerts, and these people who came out, they were all adults; they weren't kids, the kids were already there. And I could see how much they loved coming out and what they were getting from it, and I thought it would be a great idea to do something for adults, 'cause kids get this stuff automatically.
"So, when I moved to Ottawa in the summer of 1993, I heard about an art and painting workshop at the Christie Lake Camp. I heard about it on CBC Radio and I thought, 'I wonder if that might be a place where we could do a weekend?' At the time I was doing workshops for the [Ottawa] jazz festival, I was on the board, and people were always asking me, 'Can't they be longer?' Because an hour was never enough, they wanted more workshops and longer workshops.
Combo Rehearsal, instructor Rob Frayne (far right)
"I had an idea that this could work, and that afternoon I went back into Ottawa, and it just so happened that The Angstones [a now defunct Ottawa group that featured, amongst others, John Geggie and Rob Frayne, who also played in the jazz group, Chelsea Bridge] were playing at the Museum of Civilization, so I went to hear them play and after they finished playing I was talking with Rob and I told him about my idea to do a weekend workshop. He thought it was a great idea and suggested that Chelsea Bridge might be interested in doing it, and so that's how it started.
"The first summer was 1994 at Christie Lake," Humenick concludes, "and it was just two days, from Friday night to Sunday night, with 21 participants and four faculty membersthe members of Chelsea Bridge [also including drummer Jean Martin and singer Tena Palmer], and it was so successful that people wanted it longer so the next year we added an extra day. Since then it's evolved, we have guest faculty members and we've established this group that started with Chelsea Bridge and has grown now to a very solid faculty. Donny McCaslin loves the camp, he couldn't come this year but he'll be back next year."
Jazzworks' reputation has spread, largely through word of mouth, and has seen participants come from as far away as the Pacific Northwest of the USA, and even an aspiring musician from China. But the majority of the attendees come from the Ottawa-Montreal-Toronto triangle. As great as the camp has been, one of the best byproducts is that musicians who meet at the camp remain playing together throughout the year. "Another thing that happened," says Humenick, "people wanted to keep connected through the year, and so they started having jam sessions, and now they have them once a month and they've a host group who plays the opening set and they provide the rhythm section for the evening, and it's usually a group from the camp."
It's a challenge to organize a program for players with experience ranging from none to plenty, and there's no fixed process, as the demands each year vary with everything from experience to the number of people playing particular instruments. "For some people it's going to be their first experience with anything like jazz," says Geggie. "It's important to have combo rehearsals and enough time to allow people to work on stuff. There's a total of five rehearsals of at least two hours, that start Thursday night and culminate with their performing at the Sunday concert.
l:r: instructor Aldo Mazza, student Elizabeth Munn
"People fill out a questionnaire," Geggie continues, "where they have to self-assess; they also send in demos. Some people, on the questionnaire, say they'd like to play with people they know, or prefer not to play with certain people. So it's based on their suggestions and our interpretation of what their auditions are like. We look at their questionnaires and figure out where we think they should fit. We try to balance it out so that people with like ability will be together in an ensemble. It can be very difficult to do; some years there are many more advanced people, some years there are many more beginning people, it just goes in waves. So once we've figured out combos, we figure out workshops that will help them.
"Over the years we've done different things, like Kevin Barrett's done how to use a PA, how to get a sound; done things like how to pick tunes, how to learn tunes, how to play together. This afternoon there will be a free jazz ensemble; there's a composers' symposiumin three of the combos, the players bring in their own tunes. From one year to the next a faculty member might say, 'I'd like to do a workshop on such-and-such': one year we had a workshop on performance anxiety...as it relates to music, that is [laughs]. This year we have something on how to set up a practice regimen, various people talking about what they do. So it's not only the mechanics; it's also about the aesthetics, so when we have this talk about nerves, for many people it was a revelation that professionals also have issues about nerves, about preparedness, about finding their own voice; things that are a bit more esoteric. So there's a combination of the practical with the aesthetic."
Humenick picks up the conversation: "One of the workshops this morning was about what makes a good tune, and it got very theoretical. They were talking chord structures, and it was really very interesting. Very high level. For those who are already starting to compose, or who have a very good understanding of theory, it was very theoretical. But there was also the element of what makes a good melody, so it was an interesting workshop for those who were at that level."
"This morning we had a workshop for rhythm sections," Geggie continues, "yesterday morning we had master classes for individual instruments, for basses, pianos, drums. So in one room Nick [Fraser] and I were coaching one group, and in another Aldo [Mazza] was coaching another group. You put people together, you say 'Let's play a tune, let's see what happens.' So we can talk about the mechanics of what made it work, why it didn't work, what peoples' roles would be, what are the common pitfalls they may run into like counting off the tune, picking the key or where to accompany each other, what to do during the bass solo, how to figure out the logistics of trading fours. So it's very practical because they're running into these things all weekend.
"It's always a bit of a challenge to come up with a curriculum; keeping it fresh for everybody and also taking the basics into account. It also has to relate to where the overall level of the campers is from one year to the next. [Singer] Julie Michels did a workshop on jam sessions last night, because a lot of the campers had never played at a jam session and they're like deers in the headlights. And so they needed a little coaching on how to approach that."
It's like jazz boot camp, primarily for adults, though this year the age group ranged from 14 to 82. And it's intensewhen the campers and faculty are not directly engaged in workshops, master classes or rehearsals, they seem to be always talking about jazz, even when they're taking a little time for a quick swim in the lake. It's like being on another planet where nothing else but the music matters.
Considering the opportunity for mentorship that's virtually impossible to find in the diminishing club scene these days, the fee for the jazz camp is incredibly reasonable. Campers pay $440 CDN, while those looking for a room with a bed in one of the site's many cabins pay an additional $130 for the three nights. Food is included, and is surprisingly good, considering it's a mass production affair for over 120 people. Tuition fees cover approximately two-thirds of the weekend's actual costs; the rest comes from grants at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, vary from year-to-year, and are heavily dependent on the economy, politics and who feels, at any given time, that it's important to support an effort like Jazzworks. It's no mean feat for Humenick, Geggie, Frayne and McLintock, who work all year on planning the next edition, from looking for grants to last minute calls to potential students in order to ensure, for example, that there are enough drummers for the camp's ensembles.
Spending Saturday afternoon wandering from rehearsal to rehearsal, perhaps most immediately striking was the differing approaches that the faculty took to achieve the same result: getting their ensembles rehearsed and ready to perform. Percussionist Aldo Mazza's approach was loose, as he played a version of "Seven Steps to Heaven" that traversed a number of Latin rhythms. Saxophonist Remi Bolduc, on the other hand, was more like a drill sergeant, albeit one with a terrific, self-effacing sense of humor. Ted Nash had to play mediator, as one member of his combo challenged the time of another; still, it was a direct lesson in the kind of negotiation that is a fundamental part of any working group and was an absolutely relevant experience.
Christine Duncan's Big Jazz Choir
Three afternoon seminars on improvisation took the students, after their individual combo rehearsals, towards dinnertime. With Fraser, Haynes, Martin and Lewis working on free jazz, it was not just an opportunity for the participants to learn how to open their ears and minds, it was an important lesson in one of the fundamentals of any improvising musician: that not playing is as much an active choice as playing is, and that, by making that choice, the musician is still shaping how the improvisation goes, also setting the stage for his/her entry. Webster and Barrett's reharmonization class was remarkable in its ability to make sense to players of all levels, explainingand demonstratingthe concept of back-cycling in ways that gradually became clear to everyone. Duncan's "Big Jazz Choir" was a lesson in cued improv, as the singer gave individual subsets of her 18 member choir individual instructions that ranged from clear melodies to voice as percussion instrument; creating an ebbing and flowing, long-form piece that, like all the classes taking place, also put an emphasis on fun. Whether it was with the beginner group working its way through "Blue Moon" or a more advanced group taking on standards of greater challenge, enjoyment was key; but there was plenty of sweat, and some very promising players amongst this year's 93 students.
Following dinner, more rehearsals found Bolduc teaching the rhythm section of his class the concept of playing behind and on top of time; demonstrating clearly how nervous a rhythm section will sound if everyone is approaching time exactly the same way. He also worked with his two guitarists in the area of accompaniment, encouraging them to exchange military precision for something a little looser, a little less predictable. These were players capable of reading charts, but what Bolduc was aiming to demonstrate was how to take the notes on the written page and bring them to life...and swing. It was another encouraging example of how the faculty addressed various levels of expertise, getting key points across to all.
Faculty Concert l:r: Christine Duncan, Remi Bolduc, Ted Nash, Frank Lozano, Jean Martin, Jim Lewis, Nick Fraser
Each year the Saturday night Faculty Show is one of the most eagerly anticipated parts of the camp. After the late-night performance, a campfire and jam sessions ensue, although some years the concert inspires the students to get up and play; other years it scares them offbut only for the evening, as on Sunday morning it's back to preparing for the afternoon student concert.
Organizing a performance with 16 musicians of different backgrounds was challenging enough; doing it with virtually no rehearsal spoke to the high level of everyone involved. For two hours the faculty broke down into various permutations and combinations of subsets, with music ranging from mainstream to R&B. Pianist Gordon Webster and percussionist Aldo Mazzaplaying only a single hand drumworked their way through Chick Corea's classic, "Spain" with the kind of excitement of discovery that was clearly as much a surprise to them as it was to the audience. The altitude-challenged, ever-funny Julie Michels led a small group through a crowd-rousing, gospel-inflected tune that also featured a knockout solo from pianist Dave Restivo, as her singing went from coy and suggestive to downright provocative, answering the tremendous applause by saying, "If this is the response I get, I need to bathe more often."
l:r: Gordon Webster, Aldo Mazza
There wasn't a weak link in the group. Saxophonists Lozano, Bolduc and Nash all proved inventive in a multitude of contexts, while flugelhornist Jim Lewis delivered one of the best solos of night, making it a necessity for anyone in the audience to check him out further, once the weekend was over. Guitarist Kevin Barrett, on nylon-string guitar, was just as impressive as Restivo during Michels' feature, but it was Justin Haynes who proved to be one of the evening's biggest surprises. Best-known for more idiosyncratic playing in a free contextand earlier in the evening, he did plenty of that by bowing his guitar and twiddling enough knobs on his effects to get all kinds of unexpected sounds out of his electric guitar; but it was in the finale, a fabulous arrangement by Rob Frayne, where he proved that he may choose to work in a freer context, but when faced with changes and a more mainstream, large ensemble setting, he's still just as capable at navigating changes and creating incredibly compelling melodies that completely avoided any kind of repetitive pattern pitfalls. If the concert proved anything, it was that there's a huge groundswell of incredibly talented Canadian artists (Nash was, of course, just as fine, but is more established in New York) looking for a larger audience.
Christine Duncan's free improv reading of Jim Croce's hit, "If I Could Save Time in a Bottle" was an terrific demonstration of vocal pyrotechnics that extended beyond the merely melodic into sounds that a human voice shouldn't rightly be able to make (but she did anyway). But through it all, with a backing sextet featuring Nick Fraser, Jean Martin (another amazing demonstration of two drummers absolutely never getting in each other's way; instead, working together with a single purpose), Haynes, Lewis, Lozano and Geggie, Duncan also proved capable of profound lyricism.
Geggiewho only got one break in the entire performancecontinued to demonstrate just how important the last couple years have been for him; a time where he's taken tremendous steps forward in creating a distinctive voice and, through his ongoing concert series and as leader of the Ottawa Jazz Festival jam sessions, is capable of working in absolutely any context.
It was a terrific way to end the evening, even as students young and old went off to the campfire to roast some marshmallows and continue talking about the unifying reason they were there. The next morning came all too quickly, with a lot of people running on a couple hours' sleep and plenty of coffee. But they remained focused, as they hit the ground running, once again, to get to final rehearsals for the afternoon concert.
It was an unfortunate time to have to leave, but it was also long enough to have captured the essence of the Jazzworks jazz camp. As the camp heads into its 17th year in 2010, the only certainties are that it will continue to exist, and that it will continue to provide a remarkable experience for musicians of all ages who want to try and gain a better understanding of what it is to play jazz.
All Photos: John Fowler