Goosebumps, Tears, and Pride: Camp Jazz 2019

By Jasmine Spitzer, Intern Summer 2019


Goosebumps, tears, and pride. These are three things I didn’t expect to experience at the end of Camp Jazz. However, I stood at the final concert in complete awe of the students and the hard work they put in over the course of only five short days.

On Monday morning, eleven students walked into the Amelita Mirolo Barn at the Sunny 95 Park in Upper Arlington. The kids ranged from age 11 to 17 and represented a variety of experience and skill levels. Some students had been singing for their entire lives but had never sang jazz before; some students had been part of the Jazz Youth Jazz Lab; some students had played an instrument in jazz band but had never explored vocal jazz; some students had only been singing for one or two years. It was incredible to see such a wide array of students represented, and I was excited to see how their experience under the tutelage of the teaching staff would shape these young musicians throughout the course of the week.

The students’ exploration into the art of vocal jazz was led by Rachel Azbell, lead instructor for Camp Jazz. Rachel was joined by a stellar rhythm section and teaching staff comprised of Danny Bauer (piano), John Allen (bass), and Zach Compston (drums). The Camp Jazz students had the unique opportunity to work with this professional rhythm section while receiving individualized attention and targeted instruction from Rachel.

Rachel worked closely with Zach Compston, Director of Education, to come up with a curriculum for Camp Jazz. In early meetings, I recall Zach asking Rachel things like…
• What is vocal jazz?
• How do you sing differently in a jazz setting than a classical or choral setting?
• How do you feel swing as a vocalist?
• How do you approach scat singing?
• What do you want students to gain?
• What do you want the students to sing?
These questions really helped in the development of what would prove to be an intensive, all-inclusive, well-rounded camp addressing everything from stage presence and lyric interpretation to breath support and tone quality. They also sparked discussion regarding the lack of accessible, age-appropriate arrangements and compositions which hold the tenants of vocal jazz to a high degree. This resulted in the arrangement/transcription of three songs specifically for Camp Jazz by Rachel and Danny.

Camp Jazz was structured in a workshop style where each student sang their solo songs in front of the whole group and got feedback from Rachel and the other teaching staff. Comments for an individual student often evolved into a conversation about a larger concept, such as how one small change in posture or breath intake can change your entire sound. This sort of set-up allowed for valuable teachable moments to be presented organically and let students learn by doing and observing. You could see the wheels turning and ideas clicking in the faces of not only the student who was singing, but also the students who were observing. I witnessed so many “aha moments” throughout the week, some as simple as “Wow! If I plant my feet when I sing, I sound better!”

After a morning of solo singing and a lunch break, the afternoon was started with a more instructional or informational presentation or performance. On Monday and Thursday, these were led by Rachel and the teaching staff. However, Tuesday and Wednesday were led by two Columbus-based singers: Amber Knicole and Mary McClendon. Amber is a young, energetic, vibrant soul who leads local soul and funk band Mojoflo. She talked about the importance of self-confidence on and off the stage, using personal anecdotes to illustrate her point. She connected with the students in a way that was deeply impactful to watch. One student who stuck out to me was a rather shy 12 year old with a huge personality that was easily stifled once she stepped on stage. Amber pulled her out of her shell, and I watched a slow transformation from “shy” to “confident” unfold in front of me. Met with the applause of all the other students and teaching staff, she performed part of her song as a seemingly new person. Mary McClendon is a Columbus legend of a different generation. She was a part of the Columbus music scene in its most colorful years, when Nancy Wilson found her stardom and the Lincoln Theater was hosting jazz giants and music greats on a weekly basis. Her decades of experience, perseverance, determination, hard work, overcoming discrimination, and facing adversity shaped Mary McClendon, and she lended a whole other brand of wisdom to Camp Jazz students. In what felt like a nice, casual conversation in my grandmother’s living room, Mary talked about her career and asked each student about their love for and interest in singing. She shared stories of her past and related them to lessons and advice for these young singers. She offered constructive feedback, a warm smile, and heartfelt praise for each student.

The remainder of the afternoon was filled with large-group ensemble work under the direction of Ryan Hamilton. The clear student favorite was Centerpiece popularized by vocal jazz trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. Rachel transcribed this fun arrangement that facilitated improvised solos for three students who truly captured what it means to have a musical conversation through improvisation. Danny Bauer arranged two pieces, the first of which was What a Wonderful World made popular by Louis Armstrong. This piece allowed several students to sing solo lines above a chorus of background vocals. The second arrangement by Danny was Night in Tunisia by Dizzy Gillespie, a song whose words were developed after the composition of this traditionally instrumental song. This song also served as a vehicle for student solos, both melodic and improvisational. It was such a treat watching these arrangements come together under Ryan’s direction with the help of Rachel, Danny, Zach, and John. What started as three-part vocal scores on the page transformed into dynamic musical conversation between eleven young musicians.

The musical growth of these students was evident and clear. Rachel and the teaching staff were beyond helpful in guiding the young musicians toward a path of mature music-making and understanding. What was really inspiring was the personal and social growth I witnessed. Lunch on day one was quiet, with students keeping to themselves or the friend they had attending camp with them. However, lunch on the final few days was filled with conversation, impromptu jam sessions, exchanging of contact information, creation of inside jokes, and enjoyment of each other’s company.

When the time came for the final Camp Jazz performance, I couldn’t help but smile and reflect on the musical and personal strides made throughout the course of the week. This group of eleven strangers became connected by what I think is the universe’s strongest force: music. The performances gave me goosebumps, the friendships and connections caused happy tears, and the growth I witnessed instilled much pride. I am thankful to have been able to observe Camp Jazz, as it has reaffirmed to me that I am pursuing happiness in the correct career path. Perhaps I even grew a little too!