Vermont Arts Council

This Lovely Summer Camp

I turn left at the Putney General Store, driving uphill and away from the village. I want to check out Jazz Camp, a weeklong event for intergenerational learners held at The Putney School. It’s  Thursday; camp started Monday. I follow back roads amidst thousands of maples to the campus, to be offered a long view of hills layered in hazy green and blue.

Eugene Uman, the director of the Vermont Jazz Center (VJC), shows me around. Eugene is gregarious, positive, and careful with language. He’s laid back and completely on purpose all at once. A big-time community builder, he stands in the center of all things jazz, then draws everyone in. The Jazz Center holds classes and jam sessions year-round, and hosts top-flight concerts (e.g., Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jimmy Cobb, Billy Childs, Sheila Jordan, and Christian Scott coming this season). This is the 41st year of VJC’s Summer Jazz Workshop.

During our five minute walk to breakfast, Eugene’s solving problems, setting appointments, texting Workshop Coordinator Ginger Morawski, and still making me feel welcome — not bad after staying up until 2:30 a.m. jamming. “There’s a lot of moving parts,” he offers. That’s where Ginger comes in. She’s deftly handling everything from meal counts to ticket sales and lending an ear to attendees who need to talk.

As we sit to eat, Eugene introduces me to the piano tuner. I also meet a chef, a pediatrician, a lawyer, and a few high school students that day. They’re all jazz devotees. And, I meet two people who don’t really want me to write about the camp.

Don’t Wreck This for Us

You see, this article is going on THE INTERNET and, like a good fishing hole, they don’t want their secret out. In that way couples do, they help each other remember a certain Yogi Berra quote: “Nobody goes there nowadays. It’s too crowded.”  I see their point. This camp is a gem. Like its neighbors — Yellow Barn and the New England Center for Circus Arts — the Jazz Center is tucked away in rural New England and operating with top-of-the-line personnel. And the jazz? It’s the real thing.

You Don’t Just Make Up Stuff

Jazz has this enigmatic element called improvisation; musicians compose on the spot. It’s a spontaneous act, but there’s a lot to it. Good players know chords, scales, and modes inside and out. They are utterly familiar with their instrument and hear what they’ll play before the sound is made. They understand how to tie things together with rhythm, and they have their own vocabulary. Those solos that suddenly appear in the tune? They are born from years of dedicated practice and study. For the last four days, 71 attendees at different levels have been adding to their skill set.

There are jam sessions every night. Each day, there are theory classes, master classes, a listening hour, and ensemble work. In level two theory class, Eugene shares something he calls the “modal telephone number.” It’s a mnemonic device for remembering the order of lowering scale tones to create modes corresponding to chords. And, people are getting it! They also talk about new elements they intend bring to their practice upon returning home: keeping a journal, practicing something outside the usual, playing along with recordings, starting scales on tones other than the tonic. “I’ll be creating me some licks,” says one New York City singer with sass. “Practice them in all keys,” reminds Eugene.

Conversations mix spoken words with musical phrases. In his master class, saxophonist Scott Mullett plays a riff for a student to repeat. The student repeats it. Scott plays another. “Wait. What?” Scott plays again, the student repeats the riff. In ensemble work, Michael Zsoldos, another saxophonist, is reviewing pieces his students will play in their Friday concert — the event that culminates the week of study. “You were going to state the melody, then play fills while she sings, like ‘dooten doo be what!’” I notice another characteristic of conversations here. They often end with, “I’m going to go practice.” At one point in the afternoon, Eugene says that to me.

Where There is Love

There is an ensemble with a 55-year difference between the bass and piano player’s age. High school kids with ball caps on backwards jam with retired women in summer outfits. Not everyone is the same color, and not everyone speaks English as their first language. Eugene’s word for the week is “transformative.” Another person’s is “life-changing.” She describes the way making music takes her to an other-worldly place. In the same conversation, someone else talks about the power of “making up a verse and owning it.”

Students love the camp, the faculty, and the setting. They support their fellows with “a nod at just the right time,” and by staying in touch after camp. They also love their art form, and are dedicated to keeping jazz alive. Drummer Claire Arenius taught that week, following the very recent loss of her husband. She’s smiling, but I get tears in my eyes when she says, “I’m so glad I could make it up here and just be in all this love.”

But, remember: Don’t tell anyone about this camp. We don’t want to wreck it.

Susan McDowell

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top left and top right photos by Jon Dreyer