Band camp?!? No, really, band camp.

Photo by Gene Jochen

Photo by Gene Jochen

There’s something that just sounds funny about an adult going to band camp. You get visions of cousin Norbert with his coke bottle glasses and French horn getting on the bus and waving goodbye to his parents. Joking aside, jazz fantasy camp was a chance to get a little of the formal music education I lacked, and learn how to scat sing.

My friend from Buffalo, saxophonist, Mike SantaMaria, sold me on the fun of it. Knowing that Darmon Meader, founder, musical director, composer, saxophonist, and vocalist with the group New York Voices would be my teacher put a big green button on it.

The cost of tuition, room and board for the Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camp week at Nazareth College in Rochester, NY was $1,375 – steep for a working musician like myself, but perfectly reasonable given what I later discovered were the typical professions and socio-economic statuses of the attendees.

On day one of camp, the Wilmot recital hall at Nazareth was filled with 50 or so fellow campers (mostly instrumentalists) ranging in age from early forties to late seventies. As we introduced ourselves by name and instrument, I felt like a brown shoe in a tuxedo world, having labeled myself as “singer,” while others in my group of nine used the more formal term “vocalist.” I had a lot to learn, both big and small.

The daily schedule was cram-packed with rhythm, theory and master classes. Music theory class with the superb Jim Doser was a lot like high school math in that I did terribly, in spite of patient teaching, and got red-faced with frustration. I made supremely good use of my time, however, and surreptitiously surfed Amazon on my smart phone to order “Music Theory for Dummies.”

My fellow vocalists varied in talent and experience. We had a couple who played sax as well — the lone males in the group — who wanted to improve their singing. I was the only one who had quit their day job to perform, but one of the least experienced in reading music and ensemble work.

Our teacher, Darmon, immediately got us working on our ensemble pieces (think Glee). One of the songs, Frank Loesser’s “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year,” had a difficult solo section, which he pointed out might interest someone who was very ambitious. Game on! I recorded him singing it and endlessly practiced it during limited free time in the days to come. I was determined to nail it.

Evenings were for formal performances followed by jam sessions. Never a shrinking violet, I showed up for the advanced jam, but soon found there wasn’t a protocol for including singers. In a typical session, a player (often the pianist) will “call” a tune — that is, name the song and the key, and musicians take turns soloing after having run the song once through.

Some musicians resent vocalists in jam sessions. Singers sometimes need songs in unfamiliar, difficult keys to play. Also, they reduce the amount of time instrumentalists can solo. Finally, they often don’t read charts well — the road maps for how to play a tune. These deficits have led to jokes at the singer’s expense, ie: How can you tell when your lead singer
is at the door? She can't find the key and doesn't know when to come in. Buh-dum!

That first night, about 14 musicians crowded the jam stage; a pianist, bassist, drummer, clarinetist, flutist, guitarist, six saxes, two trumpets and me, the outlying singer. Undeterred, I grabbed a mic, sat down, and made sure to look like I wouldn't be leaving any time soon. They found a place for me, offering me my own turn as a scat soloist and occasional tune caller. Having discovered a position in the band I later invited some of my fellow singers to join in the fun. We all got along just fine.

Communal meal times gave everyone a chance to become better acquainted. I made a point of switching tablemates at each meal and getting to know as many of my fellow musicians as possible. The array of professions represented was dizzying: a medical physicist, accountant, cardiologist, physician researcher, philosophy and advertising professors, music teacher, three aerospace engineers, and at least eight lawyers — among many other professions. Conversation flowed easily and we didn’t want to stop.

Even more than the music, the one-on-one connections were most treasured: there was Christine, the serious lawyer with a heart as big as Wisconsin who dreamed of donating money she made from her gorgeous singing to the less fortunate; Bob, the gentle trombonist with MS who found it difficult to play anymore and thought he might like to sing; Frank, the shy, brilliant, aerospace engineer who made himself available to accompany me on piano during every break; Giuseppe, the gravelly-voiced saxophonist whose voice was made fun of as a child and wrongly thought he couldn’t sing; Celia the flutist/physician researcher who was torn between a profession she felt called to and the music she loved. Most touching of all was Carol, the paralegal with sass who had been gravely ill, undergone a tracheostomy and lost much of her vocal range, but could still movingly deliver a song with fewer notes, but oh-so-much soul.

Each of their stories wove into mine and I felt a kinship with these people called by the beauty of music, and camaraderie jazz provided. They were no longer strangers, and by the time our final recitals arrived, we had not only become friends, we had gelled into some pretty good vocal and instrumental ensembles.

And that difficult solo I coveted and practiced for? Christine, the songbird lawyer and I split it right down the middle. She was better than I, but no matter. What about Carol of few notes? She earned the sole standing ovation.

Just like in our lives outside of band camp, everyone missed some beats and hit a few flat ones, but here, there was love, acceptance and encouragement all around and gorgeous music was made.