Stanford jazz camp hits high notes

Scott Chernis Ndugu Chancler and Matthew Sazima

Stanford Jazz Workshop faculty member Ndugu Chancler coaches 16-year-old Matthew Sazima of Granite Bay, Calif., on the vibraphones. Chancler is also a drummer, producer and composer.

Scott Chernis Corbin Jones on bass

Corbin Jones, a 16-year-old bassist from Greenwood Village, Colo., listens intently to workshop faculty member and guitarist Julian Lage.

Scott Chernis Henry Butler

New Orleans-born pianist and vocalist Henry Butler critiques a combo of Stanford Jazz Workshop students that includes Miles Serber, 17, of Portland, Ore., on piano.

"Who has questions?" Wycliffe Gordon, a jazz trombonist, asked his students. "It doesn't matter how silly or stupid or embarrassing you think your question is; just raise your hand and ask me, because chances are someone else has the exact same question as you."

His energy was vivid, and the music he and his fellow musicians produced on their instruments was powerful and restless.

The jazz that filled the halls of the Braun Music Center at the end of last month came not only from the Stanford Jazz Workshop faculty but also from their students—the 12- to 17-year-olds participating in the annual jazz camp on campus.

The camp was divided into two weeklong programs for beginning to advanced musicians. Students learned musical theory, jazz history, techniques, special concepts and ear-training rhythm exercises. They participated in private lessons and optional jam sessions, and they performed in small combos. Week One, which was held July 20 to 25, featured 223 students; Week Two, which ran from July 27 to Aug. 1, featured 195 students.

Each student was given a daily schedule that started with a general meeting and ended with an optional late-night jam with workshop faculty. No experience playing jazz was necessary, but most of the young musicians were required to have played their instrument for at least 18 months. The annual program is open to everyone, but students are placed depending on their skill level. All worked toward a final performance at the end of the week.

Jazz camp participants have the option of staying on campus or commuting. Approximately 35 percent of the students live outside the Bay Area. About 3 percent are international students, coming from as far as Japan and France. Those who choose to stay on campus reside in the residence halls and receive a meal plan. For many of the students, the freedom to stay on campus—and enjoy the food—is the best part of camp.

"The food's free for us [with room and board]," said Jonathan Lucas, who will be a junior at La Cañada High School in Southern California. "I don't know why they do that, but it's really sweet, and all the faculty is really great; they're pretty funny."

The faculty are a key reason the camp is so popular. All are working jazz musicians themselves, and many attended the camp when they were younger.

Another component of the camp is the jazz mentors program, an internship for 18- to 25-year-old musicians. They work individually with the younger students and guide them throughout the week.

Those students who are at the top level of their musical ability may audition to be a part of the jazz residency, a program for musicians 18 years old and older. The residency takes place this week.

Patrick Wolff, an alto saxophone player and the jazz camp residency faculty director, has been working with the Jazz Workshop for the past eight years.

"I'd gone here once as a kid, and I really enjoyed it," Wolff said. "The associate director hired me to work as a counselor and started having me teach a couple of classes here and there, kind of feeling out my way, and I kind of trickled into it over the course of three years, from being a counselor to a faculty director."

Rob Kohler, the jazz camp faculty director, first came to the workshop in 1991 as part of the singing program. For the past 17 years, he has seen hundreds of students with different ranges and levels of experience come to the workshop. Many of the students, though they lack experience with jazz, know quite a lot about classical music. Kohler said that it is important to know certain aspects of both.

"Classical and jazz are not two separate languages at all," Kohler said. "There are music fundamentals that are absolute to them. The only difference is that with classical music, you're trained to learn and play the music that's been written down by a master, whereas with jazz, it is the master because you create the music as it happens, so you're more in the moment."

The workshop is an annual Stanford tradition, with its history beginning in Stanford's own Coffee House.

In 1972, Jim Nadel was a Stanford music student and alto saxophonist. He wanted to develop a community where like-minded jazz musicians could come together. A group began meeting in the Coffee House once a week to play records and talk about jazz. The group quickly expanded, and the Jazz Workshop was created. Nadel is the artistic and executive director of the workshop and festival, as well as a lecturer in Stanford's Department of Music.

The camp's final performances at the end of the week—which were open to family, friends and the public—were presented in several auditoriums on campus. Directed by the students themselves, they showed a week's worth of work and accomplishment, according to Wolff.

"For me, it's really something miraculous when you take five kids who might have serious technical problems with their instrument or who might not have any experience playing jazz, and you put them all together in a group for a week … and you can get them to actually sound like a band," Wolff said.

"I knew it would be a great experience," said Cindy Sithi-Amnuai, who will be a junior at Orange County High School of the Arts. "I get to meet a lot of new people and connect with different musicians, and I knew I'd be able to learn from a lot of professionals."

The Stanford Jazz Festival continues through Aug. 9, with performances by the Wycliffe Gordon Sextet on Wednesday, the Jazz Residency Participant Concert on Thursday, the All-Star Faculty Jam Session on Friday and Fly +1, with guest tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, on Saturday. For more information, visit

Gabrielle Hadley is a writing intern at the Stanford News Service.