Young musicians learn to improvise at summer jazz camp

Summer jazz camp teaches kids how to improvise

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Squeaks and squeals seep through the band room door. Sherwood Middle School Band Director Andy Pizzo steps to the music stand and musicians snap to attention.

Andy Pizzo
Andy Pizzo (Source: WAFB)

Pizzo counts them down. “Beginning, two, and here you go.”

The room comes alive with the sound of Latin jazz. “It’s a foreign language,” Pizzo calls out over the rhythm of Oye Como Vas.

This is jazz camp, where aspiring musicians learn the language of the only completely American art form: jazz.

The notes are the alphabet, the sound, color.

“Listen to the rhythm,” Pizzo called out. “Because the rhythm is like a vocabulary word.”

And the groove? That's the story.

The camp is a collaborative effort between host, St. Michael the Archangel High Band Director Kevin “Doc” Andry and Pizzo. Together, they have been teaching kids to speak in solos for the past seven summers.

(Source: WAFB)
(Source: WAFB)

This year’s camp drew school-aged kids from East Baton Rouge and Ascension parishes.

“We’ve got public school, private school, home school,” said Pizzo “middle school all the way to seniors in high school.”

And the kids are learning more than just the notes on the page.

“You know, with classical music,” said Andry. “Beethoven wrote this, Mozart wrote this. That’s how I’m going to play it. The cool thing about jazz is each one of them gets to create.”

That’s what this camp is all about: a mood, a feeling captured in the moment and released for everyone to appreciate.

For many, it's a first crack at improvisation.

“Some of them are trembling at first,” said Pizzo. “You get that deer in the headlights look. Then they realize, ‘I just played my first jazz solo. It wasn’t so bad. Let me do it again.’”

“I was really nervous,” said first-year bassist, Carlos Lee. “I thought I had it down, but I got really nervous and froze.”

For Andry, those glitches are all part of the jazz dialogue. The sharp notes and the missed beats all go into building a confident musician.

"The whole week," he said "we've been talking about the 'C' word. 'Courage.' Get up there and play."

Kevin “Doc” Andry
Kevin “Doc” Andry (Source: WAFB)

The musicians swapping solos may not know it, but there’s a more important lesson bopping from horn to horn.

“What we really do is we teach them how to think,” Andry said. “How to think outside the box. How not to be afraid to take a risk, which is what you need to be successful as an adult.”

Of course, no language course is complete without a speech. In this case, it’s a concert for parents and friends, and when the kids stand up to speak, they wail.

Andry stands near the back of the room and beams like a proud parent of 37 musicians.

“When they get it,” he said “they get that grin with the dimples. It’s the greatest.”

And that’s a language everyone can understand.

Copyright 2019 WAFB. All rights reserved.