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The Joy of Learning at Straight Ahead Jazz Camp

Last summer I attended the 2017 Straight Ahead Jazz Camp on a whim and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made all year!

Each summer, the Jazz Institute of Chicago hosts a week of master classes, workshops and lectures called the Straight Ahead Jazz Camp. World-renowned musicians convene in Columbia College’s music building to discuss their professional experiences, peruse jazz history and share bits of wisdom to jazz musicians of varying ages and skill.

Attendees included jazz veterans, historians, enthusiasts and young musicians, all of whom were looking to expand their jazz resources. Some (such as myself) were eagerly taking notes, while others

Nadine Smith, Neil Tesser and Barry Harris photo by Thaddeus Tukes

were in total awe of the profound jazz knowledge from the presenters. Each presenting musician is an artist-in-residence, usually giving multiple workshops throughout their given day.

This past camp was of particular interest to me because it featured internationally acclaimed pianist Barry Harris. Mr. Harris, who has performed with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and many others, was as insightful about jazz history as he was jazz theory.

“You aren’t jazz musicians, you’re classical musicians,” said Mr. Harris during an interview with Joe Segal, owner of the Jazz Showcase. An American classical musician, Mr. Harris described what he calls the “sacred” correlation between numbers and tones. He uses arithmetic to guide his harmonic approach, stating his disdain of formal titles given to scales.

“Jazz is logic. Music is logic. It’s unlimited because it’s like math.” Mr. Harris says he believes many of the greatest jazz composers had an understanding of the relationship between math and music, which helped them to create timeless melodies.

“They wrote songs you could sing,” said Mr. Harris.

A jazz musician since the age of 15, Mr. Harris says his introverted personality influenced his devotion to the piano. While he cites saxophonist Charlie Parker as the first musician to attract him to jazz, he credits vibist Milt Jackson as the musician who inspired him to play jazz.

“Charlie Parker is the keeper of the classical bebop slang,” said Mr. Harris. “But Milt Jackson maybe made me the musician I am today.”

A professor and international lecturer, Mr. Harris says he believes it is the responsibility of the older generation to help children develop an appreciation of music. When asked if he would ever stop teaching, he responded with his classic phrase, “Get out of here!”

Another notable workshop was “Where Are They Now?” which examined the absence of institutional resources to promote women in the jazz industry. Led by saxophonist and Chicago State University Professor Roxanne Stevenson, the presentation included data showing that less than 26% of women graduate from collegiate music programs. She also explored the national absence of women collegiate band directors.

“Someone said to me, ‘Women have no business teaching music,’” said Ms. Stevenson.

The daily jam sessions at the Straight Ahead Jazz Camp gives attendees a chance to try out the concepts they have learned that day

The presentation ended by discussing the absence of historical narratives centering professional women instrumentalists. Attendees received a comprehensive list of women jazz band leaders of varying instruments, with links to videos and biographies.

The remaining days saw lectures from Rufus Reid, Monika Herzog, Dave Douglas and Chicago’s own Ari Brown.

One of the biggest attractions to the Straight Ahead Jazz Camp is the daily morning master classes with Chicago legends. The faculty included Victor Garcia, Bobbi Wilsyn and the late Willie Pickens, who helped launch the Straight Ahead Jazz Camp. Gaining access to their years of experience and professionalism is invaluable, and reminds us that many of the greatest jazz artists are in/from Chicago.

The daily jam sessions are also a unique feature at the Straight Ahead Jazz camp. After spending the day learning from an artist-in-residence, attendees get the opportunity to participate in an open jam session with the artists. You can not only incorporate new information you’ve gained from lectures, but you can also analyze how the artists apply those skills in real time. Some artists, such as Ari Brown, actually shared short melodic excerpts with those who were interested. Ending each day with a jam session really sets the Straight Ahead Jazz Camp apart as a hands-on experience with national jazz masters.

If the 2018 Straight Ahead Jazz Camp is anything like this past one, I will definitely be in attendance.


Thaddeus Tukes is a vibist from Chicago, IL. Tukes has been showcased across the country, including Carnegie Hall, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Chicago Jazz Festival, and the Jazz Showcase. Tukes has been featured with jazz greats, including Victor Goines, Roy Hargrove, and Joan Collasso. Tukes’ virtuosity and expertise have given him opportunities across genres, sharing stages with Earth, Wind, and Fire, The Roots, Kendrick Lamar, and Chance the Rapper. Tukes is a graduate of Northwestern University where he studied Jazz and Journalism.


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