If there is a style of music that San Diego is not known for, it's jazz. Sure, this desert by the sea is a hot bed for "soft jazz," but anyone with operable auditory canals can tell you that's really just instrumental pop, or what used to be called "lounge music." No, we're talking serious jazz, the stuff that's at once challenging, occasionally free form, and always played with vigor and soul. Not the sonic Prozac that Kenny G is softly, pleasantly, mercilessly churning out.
Unbeknownst to most, there are world-class jazz players in this town-as well as a growing number of venues. Yet unlike the local pop, rock and folk scenes, jazz is perceived as the esoteric leisure sport of the aging demographic-the elderly, the fogeys, the geezers. Dan Atkinson, the man behind University of California, San Diego's upcoming Jazz Camp, hopes to change all that.
From June 20 to 24, 50 students between the ages of 16 and 21 will be given the opportunity to study their craft under the tutelage of some damn-well-respected names: alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, flautist Holly Hoffman and drummer Gerry Hemingway, to name just three of the dozen esteemed teachers lending some wisdom.
Think of it as an investment both in San Diego's youth and in the future cultural clime of San Diego. Speaking from his UCSD office, Atkinson is amiable and clearly enthusiastic about the upcoming camp.
"For the past 14 years, I've presented jazz concerts around town and I became aware of this other piece to the picture," he says. "The educational aspect was missing from the local scene, really Southern California as a whole.
"Basically, I learned about these types of programs from some of the big jazz festivals. [The Monterrey Jazz Festival], for example, has educational components and I felt it was time to bring that sort of thing here."
Asked about his ultimate goal for Jazz Camp, Atkinson states loftily and without hesitation, "I hope that we contribute to the ongoing history of the music by giving students a chance to experience-first hand-new musical ideas. It's wonderful to think that a bass player has the opportunity to, say, take a lesson from a bassist as acclaimed as Bob Magnusson and then later that same day work with another accomplished bassist like Lisle Ellis, who has a completely different technique."
Atkinson is quick to point out that the focus of the week's study will be the more traditional jazz forms, and he apparently joins the list of purists who aren't fond of "smooth jazz."
"We're not having any involvement with smooth jazz," he states. "We will be using bebop as the ground floor, moving on to hard-bop and then open-form free-jazz. Basically, it's jazz from the 1940s to the present time, a spectrum of styles as improvised strategies."
An infusion of youthful blood is certainly important to any genre that's been around for more than six decades. Atkinson has the resources to establish a top-notch teaching structure-but are there enough young jazzbos to fill the classrooms?
"The jazz audience used to be a 65-and-up crowd," he says. "But more recently there has been a growing 30-and-under segment which has become a big part of the scene. This has developed over the past decade, and gives me a lot of cause for hope over the fate of this music."
With an audible smile, he concludes: "In spite of all the frustrations to be had playing music these days, it's wonderful that some young people still want to investigate and perform."