INTERPLAY JAZZ CAMP Impressions #1: Gospel Choir!

Performance at Billings Farm

Thanks to my friendship with NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan, that began last Feb. at a vocal workshop in Vancouver, I decided to apply to INTERPLAY JAZZ & ARTS . IPJ&A is a unique jazz camp in pastoral Woodstock , Vermont that was created by  the talented couple, Fred Haas and Sabrina Brown in 1996.  Over the years, it has attracted a roster of world-class jazz teachers/musicians ( including Fred) plus an ardent following of  “play” ers,  including myself.  Some of the teachers ( and students)  were new this year, but most have been with IP from its genesis.

With IP’s unique , holistic approach that integrates yoga and mediation , it encourages a balanced and integrative approach to the improvisational art of jazz . A fan of holistic medicine, and yoga IP was right up my alley. To my delighted surprise, I became the first recipient of the Georgina Williamson Vocal Scholarship, generously provided by the wonderful Mimi and Marshall Heuser, close friends of Georgina’s. I announced my scholarship on FB, at my gigs, in my email newsletter and to anyone who wanted to know. I knew that it would be a great adventure, yet I did not know just HOW great. I was intrigued by the description “ a holistic jazz experience that will change your life” on their website. It made me wonder, to what extent?  I am no stranger to testing myself in unknown waters . I have had a lot of unusual experiences from communal living to studying in LA, to raising my daughter on a rural island, to attending workshops at Esalen, Big Sur or Hollyhock on Cortes Island . So, I was ready for the experience,  yet with the impending release of my third CD… I still wondered… how much would it change me? I am not sure I can fully describe this yet, as I continue to feel the changes initiated at IP very much at work in my life now. Yet, perhaps in sharing aspects of my process, over the course of the next few weeks in this blog, you will both get a good sense of it.

Upon arriving, I was excited and anxious. I did not want to let anyone down.  Or myself. I am happy to say, I did not. To take full advantage of my time, I inhaled every possible musical moment I could.  Of course I could not experience it all, as so much was always going on in tandem, but I sure did my best to try. During our “meet and greet” dinner party I met folks from all over the US ranging from 14 years of age to Maestro Gene Bertoncini in his 80’s. It was tough to decide where best to focus my energies as there was so  much to choose from. Yet, based on their helpful advice, that night, I joined the Gospel Choir with the inspirational Dartmouth Director Walter Cunningham.  It was a very good decision. It was also the first of many …” Oh My God”! moments .  Why? Not only can Walter sing like an Adonis Angel who has a massive octave, perfect pitch range, he is also as beautiful to look at as he is to listen too! It’s no secret. He is fitter than any fiddle with a winning smile and expressive, warm eyes. He exudes a stadium of unlimited energy, joy and focus. He’s the kind of easy, happy person everyone wants to hang out with. And yes, I like and respect him a lot. Check out his website if you don’t believe me. All I can say, is I have never heard anyone sing as powerfully, nor as tenderly as Walter.  He is a humble genius, a gifted musical conduit, who shares Gods’ and his wisdom through Gospel music . Walter’s stories are the best!  When stumbling blocks came up vocally,  he shared vignettes of personal imagery that helped elicit the sensitive, specific nuance he wanted us to feel in the words or the phrasing or the vowel shape of each line.  All was taught and sung carefully, note by- alto- tenor- bass-soprano note, while accompanying us on the piano. All by ear and memory. Which is part of the gospel tradition.  Walter was also adept in how to reach the range of folks in our group, from experienced vocalists to beginners, from all paths, from the Jewish tradition to Buddhists to atheists. Very quickly we all came together under his expansive, universal musical umbrella.

Folks, I am a native Northern Ontario, Canadian, white, brunette ( EH?)  who relocated to the West Coast in the 70’s. I listened to some gospel over the years including Mahalia Jackson  but never had the pleasure of being in a Baptist or Gospel Church choir.  I had  I sung in a local church choir  for eighteen years, and in a gospel choir in Vancouver a couple of years ago.  Not to diminish those stepping-stones, but perhaps it took all those experiences for me to really appreciate whose presence I was in. For, within our trans-formative three-hour rehearsal,  by night ends our new group of thirty plus singers actually sounded like a real gospel choir. Most importantly though was that we all connected. In those pristine moments, I felt like I began to understand the spirit of Gospel music that is fundamentally at the root of  jazz. Under the focused, commanding, and compelling direction of a teacher like Walter, I knew I was with a Master.  My bumps goosed! That was just the first night…

Walter & I at Billings Farm

June in Vermont

I was awarded a full scholarship from Interplay Jazz & Arts, in honor of Georgina Williamson, to study with the great Karrin Allyson &  NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan in Woodstock, Vermont for a week in June!  My thanks to the Founder and Director, Fred Haas and Co- Director  Sabrina Brown. The holistic jazz program integrates daily yoga , meditation,  a beautiful setting and marvelous food- I can’t wait!