All That Jazz

MONMOUTH — Rifts drift through the halls. Every nook and cranny is filled with musicians, young and old, jamming together, practicing, learning from each other.

Campers are sleep deprived, living, breathing music all day, every day during the annual Mel Brown Jazz Camp at Western Oregon University.

During vocalist warmups on Thursday morning, teacher Sherry Alves could tell her four singers were not ready for the high notes after three grueling days at camp.

Photo of boy playing guitar
Owen Boxwell lays out on his guitar solo during the playing of “Up in the Air” during a practice with his small combo group on Thursday at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp.

“Do explore; do sing healthfully,” she said as she worked the singers through chords to warm up their voices. “Don’t sing a note that doesn’t feel comfortable.”

Rachel Ammons is a singer, working through her second bachelor’s degree in music at Western Oregon University.

This was her second time attending the Mel Brown Jazz Camp, held every August at WOU.

“When I went last year, it was pretty eye-opening,” she said. “There are a lot of young kids who are very talented, particularly instrumentalists.”

Ammons, 25, said it can be challenging to work through the “crunchy parts in the middle” when she is paired with less confident vocalists.

She is one of just four musicians who signed up for the camp strictly for vocals.

Musician campers range in age from young teens to 60 and older, from confident and experienced, to … well, less confident.

By the end of the week, everyone has made improvements.

This year, Ammons has enjoyed seeing a lot of the same faces; though last year, she admits it was a little bit of culture shock being around so many young people.

Girl singing and boy playing saxophone
Rachel Ammons practices with her small combo jazz group on Thursday at the Mel Brown Jazz Camp at Western Oregon University.

“The bass player in our combo was 13 years old last year,” she said.

At jazz camp, musicians are taught to experiment with music.

One workshop, “Don’t be a Bore,” encouraged campers to approach melody differently than it was written.

As an example, “Fly Me to the Moon” was handed out to everyone. The class was then asked to sing the notes and music as written.

The result? Something unnatural, like elevator music or something you might hear in a scary movie right before something bad would happen.

“We’re taught to follow the rules,” Alves said. “Now we need to break them.”

Alves said when a musician is handed a piece of sheet music, he or she may feel stifled by the printed notes. In jazz, it’s about making different decisions, disregarding the exact words or melody, and making it your own, being creative.

“We are the enemies to music right now,” she said.

Alves invited musicians to take a turn with whatever instrument they played and have fun with the song, made famous by the “King of Phrasing,” Frank Sinatra.

Ammons took a turn belting out the tune, twice making it a little different.

She would like to make a career as a recording and touring artist.

Thursday afternoon, Ammons and the fellow musicians in her small combo were working out the set and who would have solos when for their performance Saturday afternoon.

The bassist, Ben Feldman, was hesitant to accept a solo.

“Remember what Mel Brown said, it takes all those times messing up,” said Lucy Ryan, encouragingly.

Dale Deatherage of Vancouver, Wash., has come to Mel Brown’s camp for years.

“It’s fun playing with the musicians,” he said. “It’s also fun to see the young participants grow up.”

He has seen musicians grow up and become camp counselors and then move on to be faculty members.

“It’s amazing to see what they started with and what they end up with at the end of the week,” Deatherage said of the young jazz musicians and fellow campers.

“This is the next generation of jazz,” he added.

Alex Parthemer, a pianist from Eugene, has only been playing for two and a half years.

“I love the fact that we can play music all day, every day, and learn from great musicians,” he said.

While Parthemer practiced the grand piano in the Smith Music Hall, Shaun Gutierrez set up his drums and started jamming with the piano.

“Just the fact that you can walk in on someone practicing and start playing with them, and they don’t mind — it’s fun,” he said.

Polk County Itemizer-Observer
by Emily Mentzer

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