Summer Camargo (courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center)

Jazz Today: Young Women Are Sounding the Horns

The story of 11th grade trumpeter and composer Summer Camargo and her inspiring success at the elite Essentially Ellington festival shows that the future of jazz will, finally, be more female.

A great art form should invite brilliance from every corner of a culture. Excluding half the population for no good reason would choke half the creativity from literature or painting or music, would it not?

But jazz hasn’t been particularly welcoming to half of the population for the great bulk of its history, as events in 2017 started to expose. Women are speaking up (again) about the ways, explicit and otherwise, they have been excluded, abused, or discouraged. (See “The Future (of Jazz) Is Female: Interview with Saxophonist and Composer Roxy Coss”.) The historic stories of brilliant musicians like Melba Liston demonstrate talent, courage, and suppression. Jazz critics, including myself, have had to examine how we have overlooked music by women in real time, leaning back on age-old preferences and simply laziness and, thus, perpetuating the sense that women are not a vital part of the scene, not dynamic and innovative creative forces.

But the talent of women in jazz is not going to be held down. The future is coming.

Like trumpeter Summer Camargo.

This isn’t a profile of a high school player who has a new album out and is being touted as a teen sensation. It’s the story of a developing jazz student, currently finishing 11th grade at the Dillard Center for the Arts, Fort Lauderdale, Florida’s performing arts high school. But Camargo, before the start of this year’s Essentially Ellington Festival, became the first young woman to win the Student Composition/Arranging Contest that is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s event. Maybe it’s a small thing, but it’s a sign of the music turning in the direction of inclusion. And Camargo is a positive delight—a fiery young player who gives you faith in the future of, well, everything.

Essentially Ellington

“Essentially Ellington” is a powerful part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center education program, a competition and festival that brings in the best high school jazz ensembles in the country. Todd Stoll is Essentially Ellington’s director, and was twice a the director of a high school band that made it to the Essentially Ellington finals. He has also been a friend of Jazz at Lincoln Center Director Wynton Marsalis for 30 years.

“Essentially Ellington is in its 23rd year,” he explains. “In the early days of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the orchestra, directed by Wynton Marsalis, played a lot of Ellington—the band’s first tour was all Duke. The program learned that Duke’s music, the music of our most prominent and prolific composer, wasn’t widely available. Only a handful of charts were out there. Wynton and I believe that young people learn by doing something. In jazz, we thought that if you want to learn about the music, the best thing you could do would be to actually play Ellington’s music.”

The idea of Essentially Ellington, then, is not just to have a high school band competition that culminates in New York at Jazz at Lincoln Center but, primarily, to distribute actually Ellington arrangements of his music, for free, to high schools all over the country. “We thought,” Stoll says, “let’s not do watered down arrangements, let’s take the most profound composer in this music and get his actual arrangements to kids. When I was younger, it was mind-blowing to hear Ellington played live because the recordings and the sheet music weren’t really available.”

The importance of entrusting young people with the best American music is the core of the experience. “This music gets deeper than the notes. It goes beyond technique,” says Stoll. “The aesthetic choices that composers and the culture make are more profound than just playing the notes. It sometimes felt like we were just giving the kids something they can have fun with rather than what they can grow from. The music has to be worthy of the kids.”

Essentially Ellington is connected to more than 1,500 high school bands, and all the the music, the charts, are free. “We are partners with the National Association for Music Education,” explains Stoll. “We have non-competitive regional festivals, go to the major music education conferences, and do workshops and clinics. By the end of this year we’ll have 5,500 schools in our network.”

Bands compete to come to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Manhattan home for a three-day festival at Frederick P. Rose Hall, where 15 finalist bands (meaning about 300 young musicians) participate in workshops, rehearsals, and performances, interacting with professional jazz musicians, including the members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The bands compete, and the top three play in a evening concert with a Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra member soloing with each band.

Still described a couple of moments that are truly powerful. “We give solo awards, like the Oscar awards for high school jazz. But before we announce the winners, Wynton invites the band directors on stage and there’s an ovation from the kids that last about more than five minutes. We all tear up and have to turn our backs on the audience. The respect the kids show their teachers is incredible.

“Between students and pros, there are so many moments. But the moments between students themselves are incredible. They play together, eat together, and during the competition you see kids cheering each other on, musicians from different bands, cheering like crazy for solos, jumping up an down.”

A Student (and a Young Woman) Getting to Essentially Ellington

Camargo is one of the students for whom Essentially Ellington has created relationships, opportunities, and methods for creative growth.

What was the spark that got her leaning toward improvised music? In just her second year of playing trumpet at her middle school, Calvert Christian Academy, she recalls the high school band director recruiting her, needing more trumpet players. “At the first rehearsal they were playing ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ up to speed. I couldn’t even read the notes at first!”

Camargo’s parents love traditional New Orleans jazz, music she heard around her house but never really understood. But with the boost of encouragement she got from a teacher, her passion had been lit. “I’ve been inspired by the teaching I’ve received since high school”, says Camargo, “including been taking private lessons from [pianist] Stephen Scott, who really pushed me with bebop. I listened to a lot of Miles Davis in middle school because he was the only player I really knew. Now I listen to lots of players, transcribe solos and practice a lot with play-along tracks. Playing chords on piano also helps.”

Her award-winning composition and arrangement for big band seems to have come from equal parts education and imagination. “I imagined it, could hear it in my head,” Camargo explains. “I knew I wanted the saxes to have the melody at the start with the rhythm section behind them. Just listening to a lot of big band music really helped.” And she has been listening to classic stuff, with perhaps a nod to Essentially Ellington. “I really like Sammy Nestico’s writing and arranging for Basie. I really like Thad Jones—sometimes his harmonies are ‘cringie’, but in a good way. I’ve really started to like listening to Gordon Goodwin’s arranging. I really like the Christian McBride band and how they play post-bop.” For her award-winning work, however, Camargo made a smart move. “I tried to refer to Duke Ellington’s arranging. I listened to ‘Cottontail’ a lot for backgrounds.”

Camargo also credits her advanced placement music theory class from tenth grade. “I learned to voice chords, to orchestrate. My composition originated in that class from a project to write a four-part harmony for 32 bars. I decided to use ‘Rhythm’ [chord] changes as a form, and my teacher who told the jazz band teacher, who encouraged me to expand it into a big band chart.”

Camargo has been to Essentially Ellington before. “I have been dreaming of going since 8th grade. Going in tenth grade was such an amazing experience. The jam sessions were incredible. They split you up into different groups and assign you tunes to prepare. Marcus Printup [trumpeter with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra] was in my group, and I was super-excited. I was supposed to play ‘Blue Monk’ and I was, like, I got this!

Stoll remembers that exact moment as an Essentially Ellington highlight. “The Marcus Printup/Summer Camargo moment is one that I can’t forget. There aren’t as many young women playing jazz, particularly brass players. She’s been on our radar since 8th grade. And she made a quantum leap between 9th and 10th grade.

“She stepped forward, and it was almost like she had a plan,” Stoll recounts. “She played three concise choruses and played the shit out of that tune. She had so much confidence and a great, fiery sound, almost like Printup. His head snapped around like, Damn, who’s this kid who sounds like me? He’s from the South and comes from the church. Her grandfather is a pastor and I think that is in her too. Printup went up and talked to her, met her parents.”

And the connection continues, Camargo says. “I text him once in an while, and he gave me a private lesson. He gives me great advice. I also met Sean Jones there and made a band that he is running.” And, inevitably, she notes that “shaking Wynton Marsalis’s hand was awesome!”

At the 2017 Ellington event, Camargo received an Outstanding Trumpet Soloist Award at the 2017 Essentially Ellington Competition and led her section to an Outstanding Trumpet Section Award. That year, she also made the All-National Jazz Band, the Jazz Band of America, and was named a National YoungArts Foundation Merit winner in Jazz Trumpet. This year, she made the Jazz Band of America and the Grammy Camp Jazz Session’s GRAMMY Band.

Oh, and at this year’s Essentially Ellington? The first-place band was her Dillard Center band, and the Ella Fitzgerald Outstanding Soloist Award (the top award considering any and all instruments) went to Camargo.

To which—after looking at the continuing disparity between young men and young women in these bands and in the jazz community as a whole—one is tempted to note that no one should be surprised that Camargo dominated this year’s “Essentially Ellington”.

Summer Camargo (courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center)

Young Women and Jazz

The problem of women being represented on jazz bandstands is no longer whispered about. It’s front and center. Stoll is explicit in saying that “we have to present female role models that young women can look up to and feel like it’s possible for them. And not just pianists and singers.” He notes that Jazz at Lincoln Center’s jazz academy and youth bands now include an all-female big band. “They play with boys as well, but they also have a safe space in which to play. We try to keep the faculty even between men and women.”

“One of our beliefs”, Stoll says, “is that girls need more heroes. We took baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian with us to a National Association for Music Education All-American Band event, and she blew the doors down. In the All-American Band, there was Summer Camargo, a young female drummer from Philadelphia, and a young female baritone player from Michigan, Lauren Elliot—and those three women carried the entire band last year. And There’s Lauren Sevian who’s done it, a generation ahead of them.

As Lauren Sevian was walking in from the judge’s room, up came Lauren Elliot with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘I’ve never heard another women play the bari sax.'”

Camargo is well aware that, as a young women, she remains a rarity. But she doesn’t seem even slightly deterred. “There aren’t as many females in the jazz world,” she acknowledges. “It’s a male-dominated world. There are negative things and some positive things about being a woman in jazz. Some think you can’t play, but then you can gain respect based on how you play. That’s the situation with me—I gain respect from my section and from my peers even though I’m a woman.”

Camargo understands from personal experience how important it is for any jazz player to have some bravado, a quality that the guys may come by more easily. “The key to being a successful jazz musician is to be confident in yourself. In my experience, the girls don’t like improvising as much as the guys. But I was at all-county and a female trombonist came up to solo. I was like, YEAH! The girls come up to me and ask ‘Was I okay in my solo?’ I do that too sometimes.

“I want to inspire woman going into jazz. I hope maybe I can play a role in that. I think it’s cool that I won these competitions. You do what you do. Don’t care what other people think. Just keep pushing and trying to make it.”

Do you have any doubt that Summer Camargo will become an inspiration for younger girls to improvise, to write, to play jazz, to be themselves? Clearly, she’s already doing precisely that.