N.O. camp keeps tradition alive
The boisterous chatter of traditional New Orleans jazz echoed in the halls of the third floor of the Bourbon Orleans hotel on Tuesday afternoon as Leslie Cooper slipped her key into room 343.
There, in a rearranged hotel suite, an ensemble of newly acquainted musicians jammed away at the old-school tune “Oh! Sister, Ain’t That Hot!”under the tutelage of banjo player and music instructor Katie Cavera.
“It’s only day two and listen to how good they sound,” said Cooper, who along with friend and fellow musician Banu Gibson runs the annual New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp.
The annual gathering draws close to 100 musicians from across the world. They come to brush up on their musical chops in daily jam sessions, make long-lasting friendships and steep themselves in New Orleans’ world-renowned jazz culture.
“For some of these people, coming here is like going to Mecca,” said Gibson, noting that she’s seen grown men cry when they get to play in Preservation Hall.
Cooper and Gibson started the camp in 2010 in an effort to spread their love for traditional jazz in New Orleans. At the time, Cooper said, there were traditional jazz camps scattered across the country, but none in this city so associated with the music.
Gibson said that the gathering acts as a sort of “fantasy camp” for amateur musicians, many of whom abandoned musical aspirations in their youth for more conventional careers.
Now, under the guidance of a wide array of professional instructors, the musicians rekindle their love for jazz.
“You can often see the change,” Gibson said. “They tell me: ‘I found a place in my heart that I didn’t know existed before.’ ”
Rebecca Leigh, a Los Angeles resident and vocalist who has attended the camp all four years, said it’s not just a love for music, but also the attraction of being able to perform at locations like Preservation Hall and Frenchmen Street that bring her back each year.
Leigh, who’s planning a move to New Orleans, said she’s forged numerous friendships with fellow campers throughout the years.
“There’s a great sense of community, and we all come together for a common love of this strange and beautiful music,” she said.
Though Cooper said that the average age of campers is in their 60s, the group also provides scholarships for a number of younger musicians.
One such recipient is 16-year-old Jasmine Batiste, a saxophone player who is the first female drum major in the 100-year history of Warren Easton High School.
Batiste said one of the camp’s memorable events is an evening second line in which all of the campers pack together and weave through the French Quarter and toward the Riverwalk.
Doyle Cooper, 20, a trumpet and sousaphone player, who is also Leslie Cooper’s son, said that the second line is not only a test of musicality, but also stamina.
“By the end, I usually have no voice,” said Cooper, who described the massive walking musical ensemble as a “wall of sound.”
Gerald French, a drum instructor who plays in the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, said the camp is a chance to teach musicians the fundamentals of traditional jazz music. French said that traditional jazz is rarely taught, even in New Orleans.
At the camp, he said, old-school standards from Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five are common, and that students from different backgrounds and skill levels engage in a musical fire drill of sorts where everyone plays with everyone.
For Gibson and Cooper, who met over 20 years ago when they were both vocalists performing during the World’s Fair, the enthusiasm and camaraderie among campers is their energy source.
The duo, who recognize that as women they buck the trend in the traditionally male-dominated world of jazz, said their goal is simple: spreading traditional New Orleans jazz.
“We’re just a cosmic force of mama Mother Nature sending music out into the world,” Gibson said.