This year’s participants included 32 teenage musicians (two rhythm sections, eight vocalists and 18 instrumentalists). Their experience culminated with multiple sessions at the famed Capitol Records Studio A, which has hosted everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys. The resulting sessions will eventually be whittled down to a dozen tracks and released as an iTunes album later this year.
David Sears, who serves as executive education director, has been involved in the program for 21 years. During that time, many future stars have participated in the program, including pianist Christian Sands (a member of bassist Christian McBride’s band), Jon Batiste (bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) and Marcus Gilmore (who topped the category Rising Star–Drums in the 2012 DownBeat Critics Poll).
Over the years, Sears has helped recruit numerous experts to teach the students about music business as well as helping them craft an artistically fulfilling and marketable recording. This real-life experience is invaluable for many students, including ones who pursue collegiate music programs.
Al Schmitt is one of the veteran sages brought in by Sears to give the students some guidance. A producer, recording engineer and mixer, Schmitt has taken home Grammy gold for his work with a diverse array of artists, including Paul McCartney, Diana Krall, Steely Dan and Ray Charles.
At 85 years young, Schmitt remains tireless, as evidenced by the way he enthusiastically bound up the steps and interacted with the young musicians during a Feb. 12 session.
“I can tell you that jazz is not dead,” Schmitt said with a smile during a brief interview. “Every year, these kids just blow me away. 15, 16 years old. Close your eyes and you’ll swear you are listening to a band from the Basie era.”
Schmitt has provided his time-tested ears for the mixing portion of the session for several years. He feels fortunate to have had great mentors, such as Tom Dowd, and he feels a responsibility to share his knowledge. “What the Grammys are doing is a big thing,” he said. “We have to continue funding these things. They’ve stopped putting money into school. When I was a kid we had music appreciation, but kids don’t get that anymore. All parents have a responsibility that if a child is interested they should be given the opportunity to learn an instrument.”
Capitol Records mainstay Charlie Paakkari (also a Grammy winner) served as engineer for the session, manning an enormous mixing console. Meanwhile, Justin DiCioccio—associate dean and chair of the Manhattan School of Music’s Jazz Arts Program—bounced around the studio as band director, sassing the students and drawing strong performances with his graceful conducting.
As if playing music in a world-famous recording studio weren’t surreal enough an experience for these kids, Bob Dylan stopped by—unexpectedly. Midway through a churning take of Herbie Hancock’s “The Eye Of The Hurricane,” Dylan walked into the control booth, dressed in white cowboy boots and sunglasses. He was working on a new album across the hall with Schmitt. The two had collaborated on Dylan’s 2015 album Shadows In The Night (which was recorded at Capitol Studios) and are now working on a similar project.
Dylan stood attentively watching the youngsters perform as Schmitt egged him on, suggesting they record the next album with the students. Dylan talked briefly with Sears and when the band finished, he gave an approving nod before getting back to work across the hall.
Several students encountered Dylan as they went into the booth to hear the playback. Some were dumbfounded by the sight of the rock legend, while others didn’t know who he was. Some kids got more excited when DJ/producer Martin Solveig dropped in on the session and joined the group for an impromptu brassy jam on the hook from his tune “The Night Out.”
In addition to having an unforgettable musical experience, Schmitt feels that some of the kids learned an important life lesson: “The thing I want them to come away with is that they should follow their heart. It’s a great voyage and you never know what’s going to happen.”
(Note: To read a review of Bob Dylan’s 2015 album Shadows In The Night, which Schmitt worked on as an engineer/mixer, click here. To read a review of Paul McCartney’s 2012 album Kisses On The Bottom, which earned Schmitt a Grammy, click here.)
—Sean J. O’Connell
Justin DiCioccio (foreground) conducts a group of students during a recording session at Grammy Camp.