Young musicians flock to Big Band Jazz Camp

UMSL Big Band Jazz Camp

Trey Riley (left), of Moberly, Mo., and two other students practice jazz improvisation with trumpeter Dave Scott during the Big Band Jazz Camp at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When music floats all week through the J.C. Penney Building/Conference Center, visitors know that top young jazz musicians are hard at work at Jim Widner’s annual Big Band Jazz Camp.

The camp attracts more than 80 students to the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus where Widner is teaching professor of music and director of jazz studies. Most participants are in middle or high school, but some are in college or even beyond. Campers are divided into their own big bands for the week, and they spend their days studying closely with a coach who is a professional musician in Widner’s own band. At the end of the week, students perform with their big band groups.

There’s a heavy demand among young musicians to learn the genre, Widner said. Students often find jazz to be relatable and allow for personal expression in a way that classical music often does not allow, Widner said.

“Jazz is American music,” Widner said. “This is not something that has been brought over from Europe. Jazz is our musical gift to the world.”

Widner started the jazz camp 27 years ago, but switched to the big band format last year. Previously, students had worked in smaller jazz combo groups. The program is based on camps directed by renowned jazz musician Stan Kenton.

The camp is well-known among advanced musicians, but is open to newcomers as well.

“When you get a young kid who has never played jazz and by the end of the week they stand up in their performance and play a jazz solo for the first time, then you remember why you do this,” Widner said.

Matthew Steck started attending Widner’s camp a few years ago at the urging of his brother, who also attended. Widner visits Steck’s high school in La Porte, Ind., every year, so Steck was already familiar with his reputation as a musician. Traveling to study with Widner at UMSL gives Steck a chance to work with some of the best musicians in the business.

“It’s definitely worth driving 350 miles to work with these musicians for a week,” Steck said.

Trey Riley is attending the Big Band Jazz Camp from Moberly, Mo., for the first time. Just a few days in, he’s already learned things that he couldn’t have picked up at home, such as developing his improvisational skills on the tenor saxophone.

“I wanted to learn more about improv and see more about what UMSL is like,” Riley said.

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