The Sierra Jazz Society explores musical ideas in concerts and workshops
by Arlene Evans
Jazz is circular says Bill Douglass, artistic director of the Sierra Jazz Society in Nevada County. "If there's a vocalist, he or she will sing the melody once or twice, then it starts over again. The trombonist may then improvise by playing notes between hitting the melody notes, then it's the piano player's turn." He calls it a "new beginning" when the musicians start over. "You explore new musical ideas in working with the tune. Improvisation is an interesting way to elaborate on a tune that you know well." He says players never lose sight of the melody, but have a lot of fun with it. "We're always surprising each other. You always have to be cognizant of the people you're playing with. It's playful music, but not random, and you have to take it seriously in order to do it well."
Bill Douglass and Ian Dogole, a Sierra Jazz Society faculty member, have collected many exotic musical instruments in their world travels -- a ceramic drum that sings in three voices, clay pots and bamboo, the ocarina (a clay flute from the Andes), the mbira (a thumb piano from East Africa), chimes from Burma, gongs from China, Native American Indian drums -- and they enjoy playing those instruments along with others in a group called Global Fusion. The musicians in Global Fusion sound a musical message that honors cultures around the globe. Global Fusion performs at schools, private gatherings, workshops, and concerts.
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Doing it well is the goal of Sierra Jazz Society, which has three aspects, says Nora Nausbaum, Douglass's wife and the society's program administrator. "The Jazz Camp is the largest part. We also offer on-going workshops and faculty and student performances." Performances, she says, are generally planned as entertainment for various groups.
Jazz Camp, an intensive five-day program, has been ongoing for three years. "We had our biggest group in 2004, and our widest age range," Nausbaum says. "Fifty-five people participated. Our youngest was 10 and our oldest about 80." Jazz Camp is not for beginners, she notes. "We ask that people really know four to six major scales. We don't want an audition because people get so tense with auditions, so we ask questions on the application. One of the biggest challenges is getting the levels similar in theory and ensemble classes so everyone is happy. We won't go beyond 60 participants," she continues. "It would be too cumbersome and wouldn't be fun any more. It's not a growth industry; rather, it's qualitative."
Nausbaum says the type of learning at Jazz Camp is unusual. "We don't use written music, and for most of the people, we don't use chord changes. Most of the time we're using modes of a major scale. We're taking a major scale and starting at different places."
Jazz Camp has a fixed daily schedule that starts with a faculty concert in the morning. "That's when they get to hear the real thing," Douglass says. Besides teaching flute, Nausbaum also teaches the Alexander technique, which is a way of learning to rid the body of harmful tensions. "The technique is well-known among actors, dancers, and musicians, although all people can benefit," she says. Lunch is included at camp. "Last summer," Nausbaum relates, "we had fabulous food. Four restaurants participated, and parent helpers dished up the food."
A final concert is held on the last day of camp at the Don Baggett Theater at Nevada Union High School for parents and others. About 175 people attended the last concert. "We had 65 people on the stage playing a piece we designed to let musicians at all levels play with scales and rhythms they had practiced," Douglass says.
Cost for the 2005 program will be $350. "We'll have scholarships because we don't want to turn anyone away," Douglass emphasizes.
Workshops are held in different venues -- most of them in Nausbaum's and Douglass's building, which accommodates six or eight. A recent vocal workshop was held in a Grass Valley church, and an upcoming piano workshop will be held in a private home.
Twelve faculty members, most of them from the Bay Area, participate in Sierra Jazz Society. "The atmosphere of the camp is elevated because of the top quality of the musicians. It's what makes people want to come back," Nausbaum says. Douglass adds, "They're all excellent musicians who play professionally."
When he teaches jazz, Douglass says, it enlivens his mind. "Jazz is a 100-year-old tradition. It's a form that opens you up not only to being a better musician, but also a better listener." He emphasizes that jazz is cooperative, not competitive. "It stresses an inner growth. It's healing."
The Nevada County Arts Counsel sponsored the Sierra Jazz Society for two years. "They were very helpful with funding and promotion," says Douglass. Now, however, Sierra Jazz Society is applying for non-profit status to help with finances. "We've received generous donations from parents and interested others," he says. Nausbaum adds, "We donate so much time that money is nice!"
For more information about the Sierra Jazz Society, call Bill Douglass or Nora Nausbaum at (530) 273-5489, or email Sierra Jazz Society.