By Amalia P. Spagnolo
“Life is a lot like jazz...it’s best when you improvise.”
Legendary American composer George Gershwin knew it to be true, and Grand Rapids jazz guitarist Sam Miltich agrees. So when he and Dan Aalto of the Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program (IOSP) kicked around the idea that young musicians would enjoy learning about jazz and “improv,” they set in motion the workings for an experience that may very well extend beyond the walls of a classroom. Some two years after that impromptu chat, Miltich and Aalto’s notion will be finally be realized.
The IOSP Summer Jazz Camp is a week-long learning opportunity for young string players to explore jazz and improvisation. Miltich, Aalto and guest professional musicians will instruct participants in jazz theory and technique, enhancing their particular areas of study. Students may have a classical, folk or bluegrass background. Classes will be 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning Monday, June 23, concluding on Friday, June 27, with a showcase concert, all to be held at the Myles Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids. The performance beginning at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 27, will be open to the public, featuring jazz camp students playing in concert with Tim Kliphuis and the Clearwater Hot Club.
Young musicians 8 to 18 years of age with at least three years of experience playing a string instrument — violin, viola, cello, bass and guitar — are invited. The registration fee is $150, covering camp tuition, daily lunch and t-shirt. Scholarships, both full and partial, are available. Registrations are accepted on a first come, first served basis (space is limited).
Guitarist Miltich shares a musical passion that began for him at a quite tender age in a household steeped in every style of music from Gershwin and Count Basie to John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Beginning with piano at age four, he first picked up a guitar at 13.
“My first few years with it were just drifting around in different genres, trying out what was the right fit,” he recalled. Two years later, Miltich discovered gypsy jazz. “It became really clear to me that was what I was going to focus on. I really, seriously devoted myself to jazz and gypsy jazz when I was 15 years old.”
“I love string music,” he noted. “The experience of playing music is so much fun and has enriched my life.” He and his fellow string players want to pass it on to the next generation. “It’s our responsibility as musicians ourselves to educate the next generation coming up.”
Courtesy of a grant from the Minnesota Arts Board, the IOSP can help to pass it on. Miltich and Aalto have gathered world-class string instrumentalists to share their love and knowledge of jazz and improv. Violinists Tim Kliphuis and Gary Schulte and cellist Martha Larsen — as well as Miltich and Aalto — will instruct the IOSP’s first jazz camp.
Said Miltich, “I love that in the world of improvisation we get to blur all the lines inside our minds. Especially for classical string players, it’s huge to break out of that box. Improvisation is a whole other aspect of music.”
Asked about his hopes for the jazz camp students, Miltich said, “At the very least, they can take with them that there is more to music than notes on the page. If they can do that, they’ll have a greater understanding of the world.
“More than just instruction, they’ll learn that you can think independently and create something that is unique that expresses your own personal voice. If we can do that, we’ve achieved something.”
The Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program (IOSP) is a nonprofit organization, providing opportunities to hear, learn and perform orchestral music for youth and adults in Itasca County. For more information about the IOSP Summer Jazz Camp, log onto http://www.itascaorchestra.org/IOSPSummerJazzCampInfo.html or www.sammiltich.com.