By Chèye Roberson
BackCountry Jazz, the Greenwich concert organization, will soon hold its sixth summer camp session for Bridgeport kids at that city’s Barnum School, with the goal of building creativity and self-motivation in the youth.
“When we started out, the idea was to try to address the disparity between what kids in Bridgeport get and what kids in wealthier communities get,” said Bennie Wallace, the artistic director of BackCountry Jazz and a Greenwich resident. “And to give kids something positive and creative to do for the summer.”
The program, which teaches both jazz and classical music, including string and wind instruments, is one month long and held five days a week. It is offered free of charge. Kids in the program range from fourth grade through high school. There is also a Latin jazz component run by the SUNY Purchase Jazz Department.
There are usually 65 kids in the program to keep a small child to teacher ratio. The students have to have at least one year of music classes behind them. The students enter into classical music and later work their way into jazz.
Wallace said that one of the greatest takeaways for the kids in the program is the experience they gain in musical improvisation.
“There is a certain time concept of a jazz musician,” Wallace said. “Classical musicians never get that training. They are used to following a conductor. But these kids have a strong sense of time on their own without anybody directing them.”
One of the board of directors for BackCountry Jazz, Donald Vega, said that the skills learned through musical improvisation carry over into life.
“In jazz, we improvise so the kids learn how to do that. They learn how to play together and in front of other people. They learn a lot from each other. When your improvising we’re making choices on the spot and as we go we learn to make better choices,” said Vega.
The summer program is also meant to grow an appreciation for music that young people are not often exposed to.
“We look at the greats—Ellington, Gillespi. Kids are not used to that,” Vega said. “They’re used to pop music, what’s going on right now. But when you go back you can make those connections.”
The summer program is funded by the concert series that BackCoutry Jazz has held in Fairfield County for the past nine years. Some of the concerts are performed at local assisted living homes and fundraisers. The last concert was held in June, at the Round Hill Community House in Greenwich.
Two or three concerts are performed in Greenwich each year. BackCountry Jazz brings in leading jazz musicians from around the world. A different jazz legend is chosen to be the focus of each concert. They have performed the work of Duke Ellington, Gershwin, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and others.
For its upcoming concert series in 2017, BackCountry Jazz will base their performances around the work of Theolonious Monk, one of the inventors of Bebop jazz.
“For some reason, his music is very attractive to the kids. I’m looking forward to it,” said Vega.
The kids from the program have had the opportunity to play for large live audiences at the start and mid-point of some of the BackCounty Jazz concerts. Wallace said the success of the program is testimony to the ability of the kids and an abundance of family support.
“We have so many exceptional people that find us,” Wallace said. “The families are really first-rate and supportive. It wouldn’t really work without them.”