One rarely thinks of jazz, community service and education at the same time. But the Shepard Middle School Jazz Camp encompasses all of these and more. Founded by noted local jazz musicians, Stanley Baird and Chip Crawford, who are both graduates of North Carolina Central University's internationally recognized jazz music program, the camp has been serving Durham and the Triangle since 1996. From an initial group of 11 students in its first year, attendance has grown to 37 students last summer, with scholarships offered if needed.
The idea of creating a jazz camp came to Baird, executive director of the camp and a teacher at Shepard Middle School, while attending a popular jazz workshop with his band's vocalist Debbie Taylor. He had reservations about the interest level of students in the school arena--especially a middle school--but a surprise was in store for Baird a year later.
Baird was approached by middle school piano player, Chris Pattishaw, who is now a student at Jordan High School. "He [Pattishaw] came to me in sixth grade telling me he could play the blues," says Baird, reflecting like proud papa. "I said 'let me hear' and sho' 'nuff he played his little version of the blues!" Baird was pleasantly surprised and asked Pattishaw to play for Crawford in the neighboring office, which he did.
But the creation of a jazz camp had to wait. Baird's itinerary was full, as he was balancing teaching, and bandleader and family duties. But in the meantime, Baird and Crawford would get together at Shepard--as time permitted--and "shed" ("practice," for the non-musicians). What they didn't realize was that many of their students were hearing the music they played and were inspired by what they heard.
Baird points out that Pattishaw was kind of a catalyst--a sign that the time was right. And when he and Crawford saw other kids from the school expressing interest in the music, they decided to form a jazz combo. Pattishaw's enthusiasm for playing jazz music quickly became contagious. "There were quite a few little drummers who played in church bands," says Baird. "We just had to teach them how to swing. We didn't have to go looking for kids. They came to us. When I saw the kids' enthusiasm, that's when I said 'we're going to do this,'" he continues.
Crawford credits the community for supporting the program when it first began. "North Carolina Central University provided us space," he says. And as the program grew, so did the support. Legendary trumpeter Donald Byrd was brought in by the third year of the program with assistance from the Durham Arts Council. The concert was held in the Bud Powell Center, named after the great jazz pianist and composer. Powell's daughter opened the center in the Shoppes at Lakewood to provide a place for such events.
The camp is a week of intensive activities in which all of the students must participate in the large ensemble, which is now the size of a small orchestra. Many Durham musicians volunteer or are recruited to assist with the camp, while students and faculty from NCCU are utilized to conduct the combos. Students are separated into combos for smaller group work, and older students are encouraged to mentor younger students. All are required to sing, encouraged to write and arrange, and learn music theory. "A lot of kids can read charts," says Baird. "Our kids know how to interpret the music from a harmonic standpoint."
Though there has been some support from the City of Durham, funding for the camp has always been a challenge. "For the last three years we received a City Arts Grant and that helped out," says Baird. After witnessing Dr. Ira Wiggins struggle to support some students in their efforts to attend the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference, Baird was motivated to create a foundation of his own. The Stanley Baird Youth Student Jazz Foundation, managed by the National Heritage Foundation, now funds scholarships for students who meet the criteria for attendance, but can't afford camp fees.
Recently faced with a larger challenge--a heart-attack--Baird tells me emphatically that "this camp is going to happen..." He pauses to look out his large back window, "...even if I'm on my death bed!"
Baird is selecting the camp staff carefully, as his role will change due to his health challenges. He feels the camp is about as large as it can be without compromising the level of quality he and Crawford expects. "Last year we had 37 students, the perfect size is about 35," he says. "I would say that we're at capacity. "
Baird has already recruited Wiggins, Director of the NCCU Jazz Ensemble and an internationally recognized jazz educator, to head the summer's camp. Wiggins has a readily available cadre of capable colleagues to assist him, including jazz guitarist Harold Green (also on faculty at NCCU) and percussionist Charles Brown, a faculty member at Shaw University. Baird says other musicians will be added as needed.
Crawford and wife, vocalist Eve Cornelious--who are splitting their time between New York and Durham--will not be available for the camp this summer. Crawford points out that though the music scene in New York is in economic turmoil, the level of musicianship there is just as high as it's always been. This allows him to develop as an artist and bring these experiences and information back to the Shepard Jazz students in future camps.
Of note, alums of the camp are also making their presence known in education and in the area music scene. Pattishaw can be seen around town with local jazz bands playing piano, while Ben Rumer--former band president at Hillside High School--is now a saxophonist and keyboardist at UNC. Fellow SJC alums Eric and Jovan are drum major and student band leaders at Hillside High School.
When I asked Baird if the camp has turned into a leadership program of sorts, he smiles and says "Maybe so, I never really thought about it like that." Then there's a pause and reflective look again "But, you know, those kids understand what it means to work hard, and they know that hard pays off."
Jazz camp, community service organization, cultural and educational enrichment experience--Shepard Jazz Camp is all of the above. And it's also family.
"You can't really get rid of the kids after you get involved with this," says Baird. He continues, "Chris called me and asked if he could come over and play for me. He thought it would make me feel better. He came over and played 'Giant Steps.' ... He played 'Giant Steps'!" he looks away, then back like proud papa again " you can't buy that!"
Shepard Jazz Camp summer schedule:
June 23-June 27-- North Carolina Central University Band Room
June 27--Student Concert Featuring Donald Byrd
June 28--Stanley Baird Group plays for the Spencer Foundation Gala
To support jazz and jazz students, make checks payable to The Stanley Baird Youth Jazz Foundation, 1904 Stadium Dr., Durham, N.C., 27705.