In the music building at Loyola University, Gregory Agid is passing down the music of New Orleans the way it was passed down to him a decade ago.
Agid, 24, is an instructor at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp, an intensive 3-week program of instruction in instrumental and vocal improvisation, composition, dance, and jazz history for musicians 10 to 21.
It’s his favorite time of the year.
“This camp allows you to be passionate about something,” he says. “It has instilled a fire in me, a love for the music, a love for what I do.”
The jazz camp was started in 1995, when Marc Morial was mayor of New Orleans.
“He wanted to make New Orleans a magnet for jazz education,” Jackie Harris says. “A lot of schools were dropping music from the curriculum at the time.”
Harris, founder and director of the camp, recruited the great modern-jazz saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan to help her start the program, and they lined up a faculty of prominent jazz musicians, including flutist Kent Jordan, trumpeter Marlon Jordan and drummer Jonathan Bloom, who all are still at the camp. Trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr. and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, both passionate about playing jazz and passing down the music, taught at the camp until they died.
“Many of our instructors come back year after year,” Harris says. “These guys who teach at the camp, they’re interested in the whole child. We’re a family here.”
When Agid showed up for the first time in 2000, he had just turned 13. The only reason he came was because his mom wanted him to attend the camp. He had moved to Kenner from Hawaii the previous summer, and he played clarinet in the band at Kehoe-France School.
“I hated playing music,” he says. “It wasn’t cool to be in the band.”
The day he and his friend Jeff went to audition for camp in front of Kidd Jordan, Jeff came out of his audition in tears.
“I thought, ‘I’m supposed to go in there after that?’” Agid says. “Kidd Jordan was really intense 10 years ago.”
After the first day of camp Agid told his mom he had worked so hard and played his clarinet so much he felt like his teeth were going to fall out. But he went back the next day and every day after that. And when it was time to sign up for camp the next summer, he did.
Still, it took him a few years to appreciate how unique the camp was.
“It’s not often you get to learn music from professional musicians like Kidd Jordan. He’s played with everyone,” Agid says. “Here, we have musicians who have performed and are still performing on the highest level.”
By the time he got to high school, Agid was studying music at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and he knew he was where he was supposed to be.
“When I was 16, Trombone Shorty, Jonathan Batiste and Christian Scott were already doing professional gigs,” he says. “I thought, ‘That looks like so much fun. I wonder if I could do that.’”
Alvin Batiste, who died a few hours before he was supposed to perform at Jazz Fest in May 2007, had a profound influence on Agid.
“Mr. Bat was such a giving, giving guy,” he says. “I still think about him every day.”
When he was in high school, Agid took private lessons from the modern jazz clarinetist, who would put a garbage can on the street in front of his house to save his student a parking place on Saturday mornings.
“The lesson was supposed to be from 10 to 11,” Agid says. “At one o’clock, he’d still be teaching me.”
It was Alvin Batiste who convinced him he should study classical clarinet at Loyola to learn another way of playing.
“The big theme of this camp is learning to play your instrument for all different kinds of music,” Agid says. “You want to have everything at your disposal. That way, you can pick and choose.”
He feels obligated to pass on the knowlege his beloved mentor entrusted to him, and that's what he does at jazz camp.
“Everything I teach now is something he taught me,” Agid says.
In the mornings, he works in a tiny practice room on the fourth floor, sometimes with one student and sometimes with several.
The morning I visit him, he and Will Hightower, a sophomore at Riverdale High School and a level two student at NOCCA, are listening to Sidney Bechet play “High Society” and practicing over and over to replicate Bechet's airy sound.
When I ask Hightower what his plans are, he says, “I plan on playing every kind of music I like.”
Agid calls the little room where he teaches “a luxury.”
Until last year, the camp was held at Medard H. Nelson Elementary School, where the sound of the trumpets in one classroom flowed into the clarinets on one side and the drums on the other. Still, the students learned to play jazz.
“Clyde Kerr used to say, ‘You can teach kids jazz in a closet,’” Agid says.
For a long time, the nonprofit camp has struggled financially. This year, due to lack of money, the national artist-in-residence had to be cancelled, along with the popular swing dance program.
Agid, who plays jazz professionally now, understands how important it is to keep the camp going.
“We’ve got four generations of jazz musicians here,” he says. “There’s Kidd, his son Kent, young guys like Calvin Johnson and me, and kids 10 years old.”
He plans to come back every July to give the young musicians what Alvin Batiste gave him.
“You come here and you realize you’re part of something bigger,” he says. “This is the history of our music. This is the history of New Orleans.”
Sheila Stroup's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in Living. Contact her at email@example.com or 985.898.4831.
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