Planting the seeds of jazz

Advanced ensemble
For the past six years, young musicians have been learning to play jazz and improvise at the Twin Cities Youth Jazz Camp.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

A couple dozen young, beginning musicians are sitting in a semi-circle on the theater stage at F.A.I.R. Arts School in Crystal, west of Minneapolis. They're facing trumpeter Bernie Edstrom, who's playing a few simple notes on his horn.

The kids answer back in a call-and-response routine that's one of the very first steps in learning to play an improvised jazz solo.

Bernie Edstrom
Trumpeter Bernie Edstrom leads beginning musicians through a call-and-response routine.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"You don't want them looking at notes on a page," Edstrom said. "You want them to internalize the music. Without them even knowing it, they're developing an incredible sense of how to use their ears at this camp."

Bernie Edstrom founded the Twin Cities Youth Jazz Camp six years ago, as a way to expose middle and high school age students to jazz.

He was especially interested in helping young musicians who might not otherwise get such an opportunity. The camp relies on sponsorships and donations to make sure that everyone who wants to can be there.

The students are split into six different ensembles, based on their ability. Down the hall from the theater, tenor saxophonist Greg Keel teaches musicians with a bit more experience how to improvise on the jazz standard, "Killer Joe."

Devante Jackson
Alto saxophonist Devante Jackson is in his second year at the jazz camp. He says he'll keep coming until they tell him to stop.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

Alto saxophonist Devante Jackson is among this group of musicians. It's the second time Jackson, 14, has been at the camp.

"There's a lot of cool people here," he said. "The instructors teach us a lot of stuff, and we get to expand on our abilities on our instruments."

Jackson says the camp has helped him improve as a soloist.

"I've branched out in my ability to play faster notes," he explained. "My improvising is a lot better. I'm going to keep coming back until they tell me to stop."

Although Jackson says he's having fun, there's plenty of hard work involved. From 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day, the students are totally immersed in jazz. The instructors are completely serious about music and expect the kids to be as well.

Peter Aldrich
Pianist Peter Aldrich has been coming to the jazz camp for five years and says it's helped him learn rhythms and play without looking at a music score.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

That's just fine with pianist Peter Aldrich, 14, who has been coming to the camp for five years.

"With this kind of a non-stop music experience, I think you get way more out of it," he said. "You're never given an opportunity to say, 'No, I don't want to do this anymore.' You always have to do it, and so you're always getting better."

Along with all of the young pianists, drummers, guitarists, bassists and horn players at the jazz camp, there are also some aspiring vocalists. They get to work with two of the Twin Cities best-known jazz singers, Debbie Duncan and Bruce Henry.

Duncan says she likes exposing young students to different musical styles that may be unfamiliar to them.

Playing 'Killer Joe'
Saxophonist Greg Keel leads jazz camp students in the jazz standard, "Killer Joe."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"If you get stuck in one kind of music and don't listen to anything else when you're young, you can miss out on something that could be, for you, a wonderful experience," Duncan said. "But you won't know if you don't ever get the chance to experience it."

Playing piano for the singers is a former student at the camp, Javier Santiago. He just finished his first year of studying music at the University of the Pacific's Brubeck Institute. Santiago says the camp helped get him started in developing as a jazz musician.

"Jazz is really a self-taught kind of music," Santiago said. "A lot of the learning is done by ear. The faculty at the camp just assists you and exposes you to new things. They just help you along, and it's really up to you to apply yourself and learn this music."

Tenor saxophonist Greg Keel has been teaching at the Twin Cities Youth Jazz Camp since it began six years ago. He says he sees the future of jazz in the students who come to the camp every June.

Greg Keel
Tenor saxophonist Greg Keel has been an instructor at the Twin Cities Youth Jazz Camp from the beginning.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I go out of here every day just pumped up when I hear what this kids are doing," Keel said with a smile. "That's the goal -- passing along the art, and having our students leave this camp at the end of the week with a great grasp of jazz."

It'll be another 12 months until the next Twin Cities Youth Jazz Camp. Director Bernie Edstrom says he'd like to have a second camp in another part of town so that more kids can attend.

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