All That Jazz

At camp, young musicians spend part of their summer learning how to swing.

July 27, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Drummer Mark St. Pierre is leading a very big and very young jazz band rehearsing Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher."

St. Pierre, who plays everything from blues, bebop and fusion to calypso, Afro-Cuban and reggae, is a guest teacher at the Blue Note Jazz Band Camp at Baltimore County's Oakleigh Elementary School.

Plenty of summer camps offer kids musical instruction from rock to Eroica, but the Blue Note jazz camp seems to be unique in Maryland and is one of only a handful of jazz camps in the country.

Christa Hise, a French horn player who teaches music at Oakleigh and Owings Mill elementary schools, organized the first jazz camp three years ago for kids entering grades six to 10.

Most of the 38 kids enrolled in the camp this year are on stage as St. Pierre rehearses the band. He's got them swinging pretty nicely instrumentally, but he wants them to sing louder on Calloway's signature chorus:





"When an audience listens to a jazz band," St. Pierre tells his musicians, "there's so much excitement, a lot of time they want to be onstage with the jazz players. But they can't because they can't play an instrument.

"But we all have one thing in common that we can play. Our what? Our voices. You're trying to entice the audience to what?"

"Sing!" his band responds dutifully.

"But the way you guys did, nobody's going [to join in]. Let's sing the way we're really supposed to sing it. I want to hear your biggest playground voice."

He leads them through stronger and stronger hidee-hidee-his and hos and hees.

"Minnie the Moocher" will be on the program Friday night when Hise will lead the band at the closing concert.

She started the camp with about a dozen jazz campers the first year. Now she has 16 players in the brass section alone, eight trumpets, five trombones, two tubas and Max Adler on French horn.

Max, who's going into the eighth grade, is a pretty serious musician. He's one of Hise's private students. He started on sax in the fifth grade. In the sixth he wanted to switch to drums.

"But my parents wouldn't let me," he says. So he picked the French horn. "It's unique."

French horn players are not unknown in jazz. There's even one on Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool album. But they're few and far between. Max started playing classical music, and he likes it.

"It's really soothing when you're stressed out," he says. But "jazz has its own beat. Classical music is all written. There's no improv, your own thoughts. With jazz you have to remember to swing, improvise, making parts up."

Max will play a solo in "Caravan," the Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol classic that will also be on the program Friday night. He's sitting in the brass section while St. Pierre rehearses the band. Hise transposed first trombone parts for him.

Kenny Tejeda, a seventh-grader from Parkville, and his sister, Karen, a sixth-grader, both play trumpet. Kenny's been playing two years, Karen about nine months.

"I've had them both," Hise says. "Both are very talented."

They both like to play jazz.

"It's cool," Kenny says. "You can do whatever you want with it. There are, like, no mistakes in jazz. You can express yourself."

He says he'd like to play in the same band with his sister when they grow up.

"If he's not the boss," Karen says, "I'd like it."

They listen to jazz sometimes when their dad turns the radio to a jazz station.

Hise says many kids in the band don't actually listen to a lot of jazz.

Kenny did do a report on Louis Armstrong, whose music he liked: "It's really good."

But James Mast, a sixth-grader who alternates on drums with Charles Dickerson, also a sixth-grader, likes John Bonham, a vigorous drummer with Led Zeppelin but hardly a jazz musician. Mast and Dickerson are both experienced musicians. Both started drumming when they were 2 years old.

Another guest teacher, Greg Thompkins, one of Baltimore's premier tenor saxophone players, climbs onstage to play with the band and adds his voice to the hidee-hi choruses. He went to Towson University with St. Pierre when Hank Levy, a musician who wrote "progressive jazz" arrangements for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, ran the jazz program. Thompkins will be a featured artist at the concert along with Todd Butler, a topflight trumpet player who leads the Todd Butler Group.

Thompkins slips discreetly into the trumpet section. He's a big guy with a big tone. He towers over most of the band.

As a matter of fact, Jeffrey Scruggs, a sixth-grader, is about a foot shorter than his upright bass. He was one of the shortest kids in the fifth grade, with small fingers to match, when he got into playing the bass.

"Why'd you pick the bass?" Hise asks.

"It's so big," he replies. "It's bigger than the cello or the violin. So I just thought it would be pretty funny if I took the big old bass."

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