William Paterson Summer Jazz Workshop: 30 Years of Mentorship

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Marcus McLaurtine, right, works with a combo during the workshop.

(Photo: Courtesy William Paterson University)

William Paterson University’s annual Summer Jazz Workshop celebrates its 30th anniversary this July. Over the last three decades, the workshop has expanded from a program for high school students to include college-age musicians and adults.

But according to Dr. David Demsey, who helped establish the workshop in 1994, there were no guarantees the program would turn into a highly successful annual educational event.

“When we started work on getting the workshop going, the idea behind it was to give young high school students the same experience as a William Patterson Jazz Studies student would have, but with no audition requirements,” Demsey said. “We worked with the university’s continuing education office to give us a three-year commitment to see if it could be successful. First year, enrollment was 24 students, and we were lucky to get that, since it was a brand-new program. But enrollment kept getting bigger. We succeeded in making the workshop an annual event — and opened it up to college students and older adults as well.”

Dr. Tim Newman, who has been a member of the university’s jazz studies faculty since 2004 and director of the Summer Jazz Workshop since 2014, provided an overview of the intensive structure of the week-long program.

“Weekday mornings are focused on classes in beginning and advanced jazz theory, improvisation, arranging and jazz history,” he said. “In the afternoons the students get into the heart of the program — ensemble sessions that last three hours — as they rehearse for a final ensemble performance on Saturday. Weekday evenings, we present concerts featuring jazz musicians like Samara Joy, Dave Stryker and our own jazz faculty, workshop and staff ensemble. On Friday, our artist in residence for that year performs in concert. Last year, Helen Sung was our artist in residence, and her quartet played.”

Workshop students attend each evening concert, and also have the opportunity to meet the musicians performing that night for an hour in the afternoon following their own ensemble sessions that day.

“The students not only hear these world-class musicians live in concert, they also get to ask questions and hear words of wisdom from them beforehand,” Newman said. “It’s definitely a fully immersive jazz experience from morning until evening each weekday.”

“For everyone in the workshop, and especially the younger students who most likely don’t have much experience with jazz, it’s an experience similar to a language immersion camp,” Demsey explained. “For example, in a French language camp, from the time you enter door, no English is spoken. For our workshop, we also ask participants to turn off their cell phones and listening devices. We tell them they’re only going to listen and play jazz while they’re here.”

That focus on jazz has a pronounced effect on participants. “I compare it to what the younger students experience in high school music classes,” said Demsey. “In high school, a music student may get one short class a day where they can really focus on working on jazz. But after 38 minutes or so, they’re off to another class. In the workshop, they have a chance to get into the music all day and evening, non-stop.”

“By mid-week, you can really start to see a new focus,” added Newman. They’re starting to understand the richness of the form and are realizing they’re dipping their toes into a huge ocean of musical knowledge and applying it to playing.”

Both underscored the importance of the layers of mentorship for students that serves as the fabric of the program.

“In addition to faculty, the artist in residence and the concert musicians who mentor the students, we also have what we call ‘camp counselors’ as part of the workshop,” said Newman. “The counselors are usually recent graduates from our program and in their early 20s. They’ve experienced mentorships at William Paterson, and are now starting to get out and play and be mentored by professional musicians. They understand what the is workshop is about and are close in age to the participants, so there’s a natural rapport there.”

“The workshop faculty are working musicians themselves and have played with iconic jazz musicians as well,” added Demsey. “And then there’s the artists in residence, like Clark Terry, Billy Taylor and Jimmy Heath, who were mainstays at the workshop for many years, as well as [more contemporary] musicians who have taken on that role.”

“As a result of these layers of mentorship, students often hear the same information — conceptual and specific — from multiple individuals,” said Newman. “A counselor may tell them, ‘You have to listen to other artists across the history of the music.’ A faculty musician will tell them the same thing, and then they hear it again from a concert musician or the artist in residence. They understand its importance.”

Since the workshop is also open to older adults, that opens another level for mentorship.

“A 16-year-old may end up sitting with a 70-year-old, and they may be playing something by Dexter Gordon,” said Demsey. “The younger musician may play better, but when the older person tells them about seeing Dexter live, that adds to the experience. It brings the generations together.”

Newman and Demsey also emphasized the dramatic musical growth they see by the end of the week, when the student ensembles perform in concert.

“Getting up and improvising live in concert at the end of the week can be intimidating,” said Newman. “But I’m always amazed when the participants get up there and play. Their improvement is really dramatic — and not just musically. They’re learning to take chances, to trust and not always be aiming for perfection.”

“Sometimes band directors or parents will come up afterward and say, ‘What did you do to this kid?’” added Demsey. “Well, that student just had a year’s worth of jazz experience in a week. And yes, it’s about jazz. But what it’s also about is focus, work and dedication.” DB

For more information on the Summer Jazz Workshop, click here.

To view DownBeat’s complete 2023 International Jazz Camp Guide, click here.



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