Sounds of camp are music to his ears

Jazz saxophonist Carl Grubbs' summer program marks 10 years of teaching kids how to play


Jazz sax man Carl Grubbs wears his hair woven into dreadlocks, touched with gray here and there. What looks like a golden eighth note hangs from his left ear. He looks quite serious. And he's playing electric piano.

He's playing with a group of kids at Loyola College in the summer music camp that he and his wife, Barbara, launched 10 years ago.

He's a sideman for the moment with the youngsters playing alto saxophone, two trumpets and bass. Fred Joiner, a trombone player, runs this class. They're playing "Hard Times" by Ray Charles.

"I think these kids are going to surprise some people," Grubbs says. "How they sound, and their professionalism."

Summer music camps are not as rare as vinyl records, but a camp run by a genuine jazz musician like Grubbs may be as hard to find as original music by John Coltrane, the master saxophonist who inspired him. He's a good teacher, too. He's gotten experience as artist in residence during the school year at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville.

Grubbs heads for lunch, but first stops in the drum class where Donte Alexander, 10, is running through a series of figures on the snare drums.

"I've been playing since I was 2," Donte says.

Grubbs says the real test is when the kids get on stage.

"Either they'll be good or fall apart," he says. "It doesn't matter. It's going to sound good.

"They surprised me last year," Grubbs says. "I think this year is gonna be a bigger surprise. I know the kids I've been working with are really sounding good now."

And they have a good stage presence, too.

"One of the things I talk to them about is that it's not just about playing the right note," he says, "but how you look."

He tells the kids that how you appear on stage makes a difference to people.

"I think they have all that together," he says.

He sits down with his wife on a short flight of steps on the first floor of Loyola's fine arts building. This session of the camp ends soon.

"This is our 10th anniversary. We never thought it would go this long," Grubbs says. "I love it."

Barbara Grubbs recalls watching TV news a decade ago and thinking everybody was having a camp.

"I said to Carl we could have a camp," she recalls.

She asked the director of the Govans community development organization where she worked to sponsor them. He was a jazz lover.

"`Oh, I would love to,'" he replied, she recalls. "`But I don't have any money. You'll have to get your own money.'"

"So, we're still getting our own money," she says.

"We had a meeting with some kids and asked them what do they think a music camp should be like," she recalls. "We got some ideas from the kids, and we just went straight on ahead."

They were going to offer it for free.

But Barbara Grubbs says the kids said, no, we should pay something. They said kids don't appreciate things they get free.

"So, we decided we should charge," she says. "Although we try to keep it not really expensive, and we also have scholarships the kids can get. Now we have people who will actually sponsor kids to come to the camp."

It costs $300 for two weeks.

"Usually, if they don't have an instrument, we will rent them one at no extra expense. We own pianos, saxophones, rhythm instruments ... " she says.

"Guitars," her husband adds.

"This is the first year we've had kids come with violins," Barbara Grubbs says. "But they've got them, and they're playing them. And clarinets."

Carl Grubbs remembers that he took piano lessons for about a year. Then his parents bought his brother, Earl, an alto saxophone, and him a clarinet. They received free lessons at a music store. His mother and father took them to New York to visit Coltrane, who was then married to Grubbs' cousin, Naima.

Coltrane, the extraordinary saxophone player who reshaped jazz in his image in the 1960s, wrote the haunting, melodic ballad "Naima" as a tribute to her. They later divorced. But the ballad survives as a modern jazz standard.

"I had known John Coltrane, but I didn't know him as a saxophone player," Grubbs says.

"When he woke up, he started practicing," Grubbs recalls of the New York visit. "So, I thought, he sure is reading a lot of music, and it seemed to be really hard music.

"I found he was improvising," he says. "I loved that sound, the way that music sounded. From there I wanted to be a professional musician.

"I was 13 when I really decided that's what I wanted to do."

He, of course, later heard Coltrane with his own band and with a premier trumpeter, Miles Davis.

"But when [Coltrane] played by himself it sounded the same way, like he was playing with the band. Like full sound up and down the horn. After that, I'd say that's what I want to do," he says.

He'll pay tribute to Coltrane in a performance with his ensemble at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 18 at the Liberty Senior Center, 3525 Resource Drive in Randallstown, and again with bassist Reggie Workman at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sept. 23 at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St.

Inspired by Coltrane, the young Grubbs took lessons, studied harmony and theory, and switched to the saxophone.

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