'Fantasy camp' lures budding jazz musicians

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sure, Ellis Marsalis has had better sturdents.

But amid the din of missed chords and poorly played riffs, the renowned jazz pianist and teacher seemed to be enjoying himself in Bethlehem, Pa.

Marching around like a drill sergeant, Mr. Marsalis exhorted some nervous, toe-tapping amateur musicians to reach for their syncopated best at a fantasy jazz camp.

"I think the concept of the camp is wonderful," Mr. Marsalis said after the final jam session on Saturday. "People can always enjoy playing music, even though some options are no longer open to them at their stage in life."

Mr. Marsalis, whose pupils have included Harry Connick Jr. as well as his own sons, Branford and Wynton, lent his expertise to 18 amateurs who paid as much as $600 for the July Jazz Getaway.

After hearing the beginners' group play one song, Mr. Marsalis paced around shaking his head pensively.

"What exactly were you trying to do?" he asked the campers.

"Survive," one jittery trumpet player replied.

Mr. Marsalis then went to work, walking from musician to musician and giving criticism along with kernels of encouragement -- "That will get better with practice," or "You'll have to work on that one."

The week-long seminar at Moravian College, modeled after baseball fantasy camps where would-be jocks can play against their heroes, was labeled the "best -- and strangest -- sign that a jazz renaissance is indeed under way" by the New York Times Magazine.

"Where else could I immerse myself in jazz for a week and not have to worry about being intimidated?" said Ismael Bailey, 41, a New York financial manager who dabbles with the alto sax "a couple of days a month."

Unlike other jazz workshops, which tend to attract aspiring professionals, "everyone here was supportive and nurturing," Bailey said.

Barry Shore, 56, an economics professor at the University of New Hampshire, started playing the piano just five years ago. On Saturday, he got to sing "Bye-Bye Blackbird" with Mr. Marsalis.

Although the camp faculty may have been nurturing, Mr. Marsalis, 60, was a tough master, prohibiting the campers from checking their notes.

Several of the campers were youngsters. Chris Linden, 13, was still smiling an hour after Marsalis praised his saxophone playing.

"I'd like to continue playing music when I'm older, but I'm not sure if I want to make it a career," he said.

But the camp is really designed for the older campers who know that music will always be recreational for them. And jazz is the perfect art for amateurs looking for a creative outlet, Mr. Shore said, adding:

"To most of us who are professionals in business and not professional musicians, that is why we play -- the music speaks to our soul."

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