To casual audiences, jazz can seem arcane, complex, even intimidating
As the musicians play, the uninitiated listener may wonder: Where's the melody? Why are the solos so long? How do the players know when to start and stop? What are they trying to accomplish, anyway?
Thanks to a remarkable program, those questions – and uncounted others – will be answered by the people who know best: The eminent musicians who will be leading the sixth annual Straight Ahead Jazz Camp, running Monday through July 11 at the Columbia College Music Center, on South Michigan Avenue. Organized by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago, Straight Ahead Jazz Camp encourages jazz neophytes – as well as accomplished musicians and educators – to mingle with the stars.
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On paper, at least, this edition looks to be the strongest yet.
For starters, the faculty lineup amounts to something of a dream team of jazz cognoscenti. The lead figure and artist in residence will be virtuoso saxophonist-clarinetist Victor Goines, a key player in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (led by Wynton Marsalis) and director of jazz studies at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music. Goines will present a different lecture during each of the first four days of jazz camp, taking on everything from the exalted ("The Creative Process of Innovation") to the fundamental ("Is It Really That Difficult?").
Also on the faculty roster: the gifted Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles, who will explore "Spanish Tinge: The Caribbean Influences in U.S. Arts & Culture," and Kansas City saxophonist Bobby Watson, who will examine the "Trial and Tribulation" of playing this music.
They'll be joined by some of Chicago's most accomplished jazz figures, among them pianist Willie Pickens, trumpeters Orbert Davis and Pharez Whitted, reedist Mwata Bowden, singer Bobbi Wilsyn, trombonist Audrey Morrison and Columbia College music department chair Richard Dunscomb.
Add to this film screenings, master classes and hands-on instruction for beginners to advanced players, and Jazz Camp will compress an enormous world of music into one building for one week. One imperative, however, overrides all others: to welcome all comers.
"Where in the past (jazz camp) has been more focused toward educators, now we've looked at designing it so it's more inclusive for everyone," says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute.
"This camp gives people an opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with musicians like Victor (Goines), Etienne (Charles) or Bobby Watson. That's something that's really hard to come by, unless you're a professional in the field.
"We're trying to balance the camp between hands-on clinics for musicians and educators who want to brush up on their technical skills (and) something for people who are not musicians."
Certainly any jazz gathering that features films on Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis alongside sessions on advanced jazz improvisation is aiming for a broad spectrum of participants.
And though Goines stands among the most accomplished musicians in jazz, he says he's focused on reaching out to those who haven't yet been converted to the music. The title of his lecture "Is It Really That Difficult?" suggests as much.
But surely Goines is being provocative, for jazz really is difficult, involving decades of work to acquire mastery. Listeners, too, need to keep coming back to the music to decode its meanings.
Goines views the music somewhat differently, citing long conversations he has had with Marsalis during their years together on the road.
"When we would do a workshop, he'd say (to the audience), 'To play jazz is not that difficult,'" recalls Goines. "And I'd say, 'Why do you say that? It's hard to play.'"
But eventually Goines refined his thinking.
"At one point it's difficult – but at another point, it's not really difficult," says Goines. "I truly believe now, at 53 years old, that everybody can play jazz – you can play your version of jazz.
"Here's where people get in trouble: If you want to be good, you've got to practice. You've got to learn the language of the music. That's where the mystery comes in, the dedication. And we're going to explore that.
"That's the philosophy I believe in. I believe if more people would pick up instruments and play, the art would have the kind of prominence it had (in the past). People would realize how important it is and do everything they can to support it."