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Getting Jazzed

Jazz Camp—where kids gig with legends

A small group of young musicians sits nervously in the first two rows of an auditorium. They chat, shuffle their instrument cases, and shift in their seats. After a few minutes, a man walks onstage and begins assembling his saxophone. Then he begins a soulful, jazzy rendition of “Body and Soul.” The kids sit in awe listening to jazz great Jimmy Heath at Litchfield Jazz Camp.

For 15 years, the camp has provided musical education—both vocal and instrumental—to children from all parts of the region. Established by Vita Muir, the camp was meant to be an extension of the Litchfield Jazz Festival; the goal was to have the kids play between major musical acts. Now, the camp hosts over 400 talented students at the Kent School each summer, providing a place for them to become totally immersed in the music. Mario Pavone, president of the camp’s board, says, “We want these kids, through jazz, to become citizens of the world.”

In classrooms all over campus, music is playing. Instructors frequently participate and the compositions turn into lessons. That’s the special thing about this camp, says vocal instructor Kevin Mahogany. “The quality of instructors makes this camp stand out,” he says. “There’s a difference between professional musicians and professional educators.”
Back in Heath’s class, students and master are playing jazz standard “Out of Nowhere” and, nervous or not, the kids sound excellent. Heath, now 85, shows them strategic ways to improvise. He talks about Coltrane’s favorite methods and gives feedback and advice. As the lesson draws to a close, Heath picks up his sax once again and plays Milt Jackson’s composition, “Bag’s Groove.” Someone hops on the drums and everyone onstage jumps in on this spontaneous jazz jam.

Finally, the entire camp is treated to a concert with Heath who opens with Kenny Dorham’s jazz classic, “Prince Albert.” Afterwards, fielding a question about why he became a musician, Heath replies: “As an African-American, it was very difficult to get work. If I wasn’t an athlete, what was I gonna do?” Talking about his experience on the road with the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Kenny Dorham, Gil Evans, J.J. Johnson, and Kenny Clarke, the message Heath continues to relay is: Keep trying. “Don’t stop studying and don’t stop learning because there’s something more you can do,” he says. “Each one of you has something to offer the world.”

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