I wrote here a couple years ago about my annual visits to a fabulous jazz camp in the northern Wisconsin woods, staffed by jazz professors from around the country who teach amateur, just-for-fun jazz lovers how to make great music.
Recently I again attended jazz camp and came away with another lesson on leadership. I was assigned to a combo directed by trumpeter Clay Jenkins of Eastman School of Music. Clay has devoted his life to teaching jazz trumpet to young people, and he has a friendly but determined focus on getting the best out of his students.
This year, he presented us with a Sonny Rollins piece called “East Broadway Rundown”. The Rollins piece is dissonant, chaotic and avante garde, not exactly easy listening, and not the kind of thing we usually perform at jazz camp. But Clay had a vision. He assessed his students: two saxophones, a flugelhorn, a trumpet, a trombone, a piano player and a vocalist, all of varying abilities and temperaments, and he made a plan.
On the first day of jazz camp, he taught us the short, choppy, repetitive melody, going over it again and again until we got it. On the second day, he encouraged everyone to improvise on the piece, and layered in a dissonant harmony, pressing me to sing a fourth below the horns with his leading. On the third day, he called on our best gifts. He let some musicians do solos while others teamed up with each other for supportive roles. He convinced me and the female trombone player to engage in a musical dialogue, echoing off each other from voice to horn. He drew us all into an extended, planned chaos, calling on some musicians to play counter melodies against others, creating a wild cacophony of musical layers.
On the final night of jazz camp, when we were to perform the piece in front of a live audience, I had no idea what we were doing. But I wasn’t worried, because I trusted Clay.
We got up on stage and followed his lead. I concentrated so hard, I forgot we even had an audience. Everyone was forced to listen to each other one minute, and then to tune each other out and listen only to ourselves the next minute; we had to watch Clay and keep counting, and trust his hand beating the air when we lost count. We didn’t worry about what it sounded like to our audience. We were completely absorbed in the moment.
Amazingly, the audience loved it.
Clay’s leadership of our combo helped me understand why he is not just a great trumpet player, but also a great leader: he capitalized on the abilities we each brought to the table while pushing us out of our comfort zones. He brought his own personal vision of a seemingly unplayable piece, but he coaxed us through it and kept the expectations light. He was helping us each to be different, and all to be unified. We didn’t even know how much fun we were having until it was over.
When the concert ended, I pulled Clay aside to thank him for his leadership. “That’s the kind of leader I want to be in my church,” I told him.
* Photo by Donald Jackson