I spent the past four days at a summer Jazz Camp here in Chicago. That was not a typo. I was at Jazz Camp.
This is the fourth year that the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble combined to present the camp for adults, but it’s the first year they expanded it to a kind of humanities festival rather than simply a series of classes for amateur musicians. A story in the Chicago Tribune explains:
“We’ve extended it way beyond what it ever was … so that arts educators and anybody interested in jazz can see the connection between the music and other art forms,” says Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago.
The article quoted Deutsch saying that the idea of the Straight Ahead and Other Directions Jazz Summer Camp this year was “to show how jazz really touches everything.” Lectures on topics ranging from “Jazz and Social Justice” to “Jazz and the Stage/Silver Screen” helped them achieve their goal, and the star of the show was New Orleans saxophone master and Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison, Jr., who opened each day with a lecture. I know Donald Harrison from watching him play himself on the HBO TV series “Tremé,” and in a talk about Hurricane Katrina he said it was the “worst and best thing” that could have happened to New Orleans. “It forced people to realize how important the culture here is. People from out of town are making a point to come, they are paying more attention to us, they realize now how important it is to continue with it. And the people from New Orleans who are really interested in keeping the culture alive realized that they could have lost it forever.”
My morning master’s classes were for the rhythm section, and I took an afternoon master’s class on beginning improvisation. Donald Harrison sat in on one of the improvisation classes and reiterated some of the musical terms that by that time were already spinning in my head: octotonic, mixolydian, tonic, dorian, altered. I was the only blind student at camp, and by far the least accomplished musician in the master classes.
But hey, jazz musicians are known for their ability to improvise. When I begged off taking the piano part for one tune, reminding the teacher that I couldn’t see to read the chart, a fellow student jumped in to join me on the piano bench and call out the chords. In-between sessions students offered to read the notes on the whiteboard out loud into my digital recorder, and others would lend an elbow to walk Whitney and me to the elevator to find the next session. I learned as much about jazz from the conversations we had during those walks as I did in class.
I hadn’t planned it this way, but Jazz Camp landed on my calendar days after my Easter Seals job had given me a new laptop with new software to learn. I’d started teaching a second weekly memoir-writing class the week before camp, too, and returned from a last-minute trip to see my oldest sister and her husband in South Carolina the day before jazz camp started. Add to all that, Chicago Public Radio had asked me to write an record a piece for them the day before I left for South Carolina.
My WBEZ piece is about how blindness can change the way you look at race, and it’s set to air in Chicago this Monday, July 30, during the Morning Edition segment of NPR. It’ll be available online after it airs, and when the producer contacted me this week to ask if they could come out to shoot some photos to use with the online segment, I told them the only time I’d be available was on my walk to jazz camp in the morning. We squeezed the photo session in.
All this activity didn’t leave me much opportunity to practice the piano in-between sessions, but in many ways, the timing was perfect. Figuring out chord structures and listening for changes and working out dorian scales helped balance everything else going on. It’s kind of like George Gershwin once said: “Life is a lot like Jazz… it’s best when you improvise.”