Fundamentals at Their Root: The Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong Summer Camp Instills Culture of Confidence

Kent Jordan conducts summer camp studentsDownBeat, March 2013

These days, New Orleans is a buzzing hub for music education efforts.

The newly formed Trombone Shorty Music Academy began auditioning high school students for its inaugural session in January; Rebirth snare drummer Derrick Tabb’s Roots of Music Marching Crusaders performed at the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day; O. Perry Walker music students and interns with the Tipitina’s Foundation music business program recently toured Japan with Donald Harrison — and the Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp began a reciprocal program with music students in Cuba last year, culminating in a visit to Havana over Thanksgiving.

But the prognosis for music students here hasn’t always been so rosy. In the mid-‘90s, the landscape for music education was bleak. Extra-curricular opportunities to learn music were few and in 1993, public schools superintendant Morris Holmes drastically cut the curriculum, axing music, among other subjects, as a money-saving tactic. (The Gambit later reported Holmes had meanwhile given himself a $25,000 raise.)

Enter cultural tourism mover and shaker, Jackie Harris, and renowned saxophonist and educator, Edward “Kidd” Jordan.

“If New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, how could we not continue to provide music education to any student who wanted to learn?” demanded Harris, a former Jazz Fest producer who took over as Executive Director of the Music and Entertainment Commission of New Orleans in 1994. Harris teamed up with Jordan, found a helping hand in the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation and in 1995, and the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp was born. From the outset, the camp faculty was top-notch, including artistic director Jordan, as well as legendary players like Clyde Kerr, Jr. and Alvin Batiste.

Despite the Armstrong connection, Jazz Camp was never intended to focus on traditional New Orleans jazz. The founding principles of the institution included educating students aged 10 – 21 in fundamentals that would enable them to successfully pursue any style of music, and teaching them, in Harris’ words, “to become good citizens.” An internationally recognized artist in residence joins the faculty each year to help students achieve these goals. Though the program has changed over the years– incorporating new genres to the curriculum, adding a swing dance program and varying the artist in residence’s instrument as often as possible – those axioms remain the same.

“You’ve got to be disciplined to deal with music,” explains Jordan, who in addition to touring and recording internationally, teaching at Southern University at New Orleans from 1974 – 2006 and instructing students at the Don Jamison Heritage School of Music for many years, still serves as the camp’s artistic director. “You have to know how to get along with other people. A lot of people can play music but can’t participate with good musicians because they don’t have the right attitude.”

Jordan auditions every student enrolled in the camp, which in 2013 runs from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, from July 1 -19 in the expansive Loyola University music facilities. “Jazz has the same standards as symphonic music,” he explains. “I try to develop their fundamentals so you can do anything you want to do.” Pointing out that plenty of musicians can “play like Charlie Parker or Coltrane,” he says that the instruction at Jazz Camp aims to give students their own voice and technical facility from early on, so that when it comes time to improvise, a student’s understanding of the music and his or her instrument is strong enough to allow a wide range of creativity. “I studied classical music,” he notes. “I never studied jazz.”

To be admitted to the camp, which since 2000 has been presented by the New Orleans Arts and Cultural Host Committee, a student must have studied music for at least two years and be able to manage the sliding scale tuition fees, although a number of full scholarships are also available to those who qualify. (A letter of recommendation is required for out-of-state applicants.) Areas of study include brass, woodwinds, piano, bass, drums, vocals, composition and swing dance, which Harris says helps young musicians understand their art from a uniquely movement-oriented perspective.

But what truly sets the camp apart from its counterparts – other than learning the building blocks of improvisation from one of the world’s greatest improvisers — is its artist in residence program. Over the years, these have included Cecil Taylor, Clark Terry, Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Chico Hamilton, Donald Byrd, David Murray, Wycliffe Gordon and Bobby Sanabria, among others. This summer, students will have the opportunity to work with former “Tonight Show” musical director Kevin Eubanks. The impact of not only learning from but also spending downtime with artists of this caliber is immeasurable.

“I was there from when I was about 11, for a few years until high school, and Wynton [Marsalis] was the artist in residence,” recalls pianist Jonathan Batiste, now 26. “I remember him having a trumpet with stars on it and playing basketball with us.”

In January of 2013 — 15 years after shooting hoops with Marsalis, Batiste joined him in a series of concerts celebrating the music of Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

“[Jazz Camp] was very casual and relaxed, almost like he was passing a tradition down to you by word of mouth,” says Batiste, who today frequently finds himself in the role of educator, thanks to his new position as associate artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. “It was really vocal and laid back.”

Batiste also remembers being instilled with values about discipline by Marsalis, who once made an example of the young pianist when he was goofing off during a master class.

“I joke about it with him now,” he says, chuckling. “I brought up that story last summer when we were on tour in Europe. I’m like,  ‘and now, I’m here playin’ in your band.’ He didn’t even remember it.”

But Batiste remembers his experiences at the camp well. Asked if he incorporates any of the approaches used at Jazz Camp into his own teaching, his reply is immediate:  “Big time,” he says.

“A lot of my approach is based upon what I learned from Alvin Batiste, one of my greatest mentors. His approach was to put young people in situations to get them ready to be professionals. He had 12-year-olds playing ‘Giant Steps.’ He [would] teach you in ways you can understand — one or two notes at a time, playing slowly.”

At the National Jazz Museum, Jonathan and his Stay Human Band lead a series called Jazz Is Now that frequently draws on similar teaching concepts. During a recent session focused on arranging, Batiste called on an 8 or 9-year-old child to put his own arrangement together.

“What’s your beginning, end, beats, who plays the melody, who solos first, what’s the mood were the questions he was asked,” Batiste recalls. “It was adorable seeing someone that age arrange ‘Green Chimneys.’  He had the drums playing the melody – just the snare – which was super creative. Then we played it in front of everyone.”

Connecting the lesson back to his summer camp experiences, Batiste concludes that, “at the jazz camp, you really learn the importance of having your own voice and being yourself. That’s something you don’t get in other educational environments.”

For Jazz Camp alum Trombone Shorty, it was studying under Clyde Kerr, Jr., that left a lasting impression – one that will likely influence the direction of education at the Trombone Shorty Music Academy.

“Those guys are also good citizens doing their part about promoting music education,” says Harris. “That’s the New Orleans way. It’s carried on to the next generation.”

Read More from DownBeat’s 2013 International Jazz Camp Issue

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