In April, I stood at the back of the band room at Vincent Massey Collegiate to hear the Youth Jazz Collective, an auditioned tentet of young jazz musicians from high schools around the city. They played tough, contemporary music—including a tune composed by their bandleader Jon Gordon—and they sounded good. Very good.
They were playing to a crowd of high school and university students, and a smattering of parents, teachers, and jazz lovers at one of the school’s bi-weekly jam sessions, Live at Massey Hall. The band room is set up club-style with chips & pop, and the atmosphere is casual and friendly, but there’s some serious business going on there—these young musicians are testing their learning in a performance setting, and entering musical conversations with others. Every time out, a few timid players break through their nerves and add their voices to the mix. Band director Bill Kristjanson, a jazz angel if there ever was one, keeps an eye on things, but it’s the kids themselves who run things, on and off the stage. They’re gutsy, playful, supportive, and ambitious.
Many of these young players will attend the Summer Jazz Camp at the University of Manitoba to deepen their understanding of the art form and increase their technical skills. They’ll have a chance to play in small ensembles, coached by committed musicians who were themselves mentored into the intricacies of this music. They’ll have classes focusing on their particular instruments, and they’ll gather every day for masterclasses on some of the big topics that all jazz musicians have in common.
They’ll hang out at the lunchtime jam sessions, they’ll hear some great concerts, and then they’ll be invited into friendly conversations with all the teachers and coaches. Throughout the week, they’ll learn new repertoire, face down their nerves, then perform for friends and family at the wrap-up. Bonus: the Jazz Camp also attracts a few university students and even some adults who are ready for an immersion-style refresher.
Jazz was built on a mentoring model: the experts foster their apprentices, and those apprentices encourage the beginners. Connecting musically gives everyone the chance to share what they know, and inspires each musician to push themselves to higher levels of eloquence. As our amateur musicians become more adept, we all benefit—the music gets more interesting, and our whole culture is nourished by the influx of creative energy.