Hitting all the right notes

Mel Brown Jazz Camp
Photo by Aaron Newton
WOU music history and jazz studies professor Keller Coker, far right, directs Harrison Brausch, Erin Westfall, Ron Howard and Olivia Fields, from right, in a small group combo rehearsal Monday at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp.

By Aaron Newton
Polk County Itemizer-Observer

MONMOUTH — Every August, some heavyweights in the world of jazz gather at Western Oregon University to impart their knowledge to the next generation of jazz musicians.

The Mel Brown Jazz Camp, held at WOU for the last 10 years, has been grooming up-and-coming musicians for 20 years.

Students ranging in age from 10 to 80 and coming from across the Pacific Northwest congregate at Western for an intensive, weeklong camp dedicated to the one true American art form.

“The definition of jazz is an always-moving target, it’s an ever-emerging music,” Keller Coker, music history and jazz studies professor at WOU, said. “It’s musically conquered the world.”

This year, more than 100 students are on campus and immersed in all things jazz from their 9 a.m. master class until their hourlong free time at 10 p.m.

It’s a nonstop schedule, but every year students keep coming.

“I came to the camp early with a lot of technical skill but not really knowing what jazz was at all,” Dale Tovar said. “Going through all the master classes, bands and combos, I learned how to play this music.”

Tovar, 16, of La Grande is attending his fourth consecutive camp. He will be a junior in the fall at Eastern Oregon University.

Coming to the camp for the past four years has allowed Tovar the opportunity to play with other talented musicians and faculty around the clock — a commodity back home, he said.

“I have a lot of friends here. One big reason why I come here is because I get to play with fantastic jazz musicians that are my age,” Tovar said. “It provides a much-needed opportunity.”

Along with the several WOU faculty teaching and leading the combos are musicians from in and around Portland, including the camp’s namesake, Mel Brown, who leads a class every year.

Perhaps the most intense portion of the camp is the jazz combos.

Upon arriving at Western on Sunday, students audition for placement in the combos — eight to 10 students grouped according to experience.

The combos meet for 90 minutes each day to work on material for an end-of-the-week concert.

Since most of the material is brand new to each student, any free time is spent perfecting it.

“The combos are almost always really challenging. They’re made to do things they wouldn’t have done themselves,” adjunct professor of voice Sherry Alves said. “A lot of times, you’re going to get thrown things that are meant to be challenging, so that by the end of the week you’re not afraid anymore.”

Alves started as a counselor eight years ago, and merged to a teaching role at the camp as she completed her master’s degree at WOU.

While the days are long, the classes challenging and the learning nonstop, the goal is to give students an awareness of themselves and the music.

It’s not uncommon for students who start the camp as fairly inexperienced players to leave with much heightened abilities.

“It’s all about the moment,” Coker said. “When you’re making music, it’s all about what you hear.”

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