Top Honors: Grammy Camp Jazz Session

Mike Lawson • • March 7, 2016

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Grammy Camp – Jazz Session 2016 was held February 6-16, bringing together 30 of the most talented players and singers for a once-in-a-lifetime experience that found them performing at multiple venues with Grammy winners and nominees, attending the awards show at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, and recording an album in the same studios at Capitol Records in Hollywood where countless legends of jazz have recorded before them, engineered by one of the top recording engineers in the history of jazz, Al Schmitt.

I got the chance to catch up with Scott Goldman, vice president of the Grammy Foundation and later, Al Schmitt, to gather more information on this exciting program to share with our readers who might want to steer their top students towards this amazing opportunity next year or in years to come.

How many students are participating in Grammy Camp — Jazz Session? When did this program start? We choose the 30 best high school jazz musicians and singers from all over the country. They represent 27 cities and 13 states. This program has been going on for 23 years.

So tell me about the process. How does this work? How does a school get informed of this? How do they participate, and how are they chosen?

Well we reach out in the fall, we reach out to public high school music programs all over the country. We do it in a variety of ways. There’s a physical mailing that goes to music teachers, there’s an email blast that goes to music teachers, as well as administrators, alerting them to a number of different application-based programs.

Some are aimed at students, like Grammy Camp Jazz Session, and some are aimed at the school, like our Grammy Signature Schools Program, which provides funding to public high school music programs. All of these things require either a student or a school to apply.

We send this information out, just as the school year is beginning, to alert teachers, administrators, and their students, that these programs are available and we encourage applications.

Now, clearly when it comes to jazz session, there are any number of high school music programs around the country that are well known for their jazz programs. So in addition to this kind of outreach, over 23 years we have developed personal relationships with many, many, many public high schools around the country that have fine jazz programs. So we of course are in touch with them to make sure that their students are applying.

What is the application process like?

The application process for Jazz Session involves written material as well as, you might imagine, audio material. We want to hear these young musicians and singers either sing or perform on their instrument. We have a notable committee of experts, including the gentleman who runs the program, our executive education director, David Sears, who has run this program for the better part of the last 15, or 20 years even. And he and a number of our key faculty make the choices in terms of who is in the band this year.

How important is the audio quality of the submission versus the performance? I imagine some schools are not that well equipped to record, even if they have amazing players.

Well, I think we are looking for musical skill; we’re looking for musicianship. We are really looking for a high level of musicianship. But what we’re looking for, in addition to musicianship, is to get a sense of these students. Obviously it’s an amazingly compact 10 days. These kids work hard during the time that they’re with us. We want to make sure that we get not only talented musicians, but also young people who have an understanding of collaboration, who are willing to work hard. Generally students when they achieve this level, and these kids are remarkably talented, that’s kind of built in, but we like to make sure that we’re bringing together a great collaborative group of young people.

No, not everyone has access to the best recording equipment. Although I will say, during their experience here in Los Angeles, they, the group, will have an opportunity to record a full album of material at Capitol Studios. So this is one of the remarkable experiences that they’ll have while they’re with us.

Once they’re selected and notified, is there any prep that these kids go through to get ready for the week?

Oh, yes. They’re certainly sent some of the repertoire, they’re sent some of their parts, the singers have a sense of the tunes that they’re going to be singing, they’re given things to work on prior to arriving in Los Angeles. That’s actually a very important part of the process, because they arrive here Saturday evening, there’s an orientation dinner, and then Sunday morning they’re rehearsing. They begin rehearsing, and it’s not rehearsing from bar one. They have to have at least certainly a general sense of their parts in these tunes. So yes, they have a little bit of homework to do before they get here.

How much time do they have to prepare for that?

They have two or three weeks where they have the information.

That’s asking a lot, but if they’re pro-level students, then they should be able to do it, right?

Yeah. Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing these kids play, but they’re quite talented, is all I can tell you.

These kids are strangers, coming in from all around the country. Tell me about the travel and accommodations and how they’re treated while they’re here, what’s covered, what’s not.

One of the things that the Grammy Foundation does, in all of our programs, we like to give students that interact with us a sense of what the music business is really like. Our Grammy Camp Program, we refer to that as a music industry camp, not a music camp. We want to give kids a sense of how the business really works. With our jazz kids, yes, we put them up at a Hilton Garden Inn, here in Marina del Rey; they’re two to a room. You know, they’re not staying at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

On top of that, we expect them on time to rehearsal, there’s rehearsal, there’s getting on a bus traveling to a gig or a performance, making sure that they have themselves together, they’ve got the right clothes on, they’ve got their gear. All of these kinds of things, we give them an experience of a little bit, a window into what it’s like to be a working musician on tour. And that’s part of this experience.

Yes, they get to play with great artists, whether it’s Sam Hunt or Andra Day, they get to record at Capitol Studios with Al Schmitt. These are all incredible experiences, but we want to give them a sense of what a working musician actually experiences.

So what costs are covered for these students? I assume they’re coming from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Well, here’s the amazing thing about Jazz Session: we cover everything. We pay the airfare; we pay their meals and lodging here in Los Angeles. This is a tent pole program for the Grammy Foundation. We believe deeply in keeping jazz not only as part of American culture, but also keeping it in our schools. So this is an investment that we make.

Let’s talk about their week after they arrive on Saturday, February 6.

I’ll just give you a sense. So right now on Monday the 8th, they’re in the middle of rehearsing. They’ll be doing that for at least today and tomorrow. February 10th, they are doing a performance at the Spaghettini Jazz Club in Seal Beach. They will be at Capitol Studios on February 11th; they’ll be playing at what we call our Grammy In The Schools Live Event. That is where we celebrate all of our education programs, but the Grammy Camp Jazz Session Kids are one of our featured performers, along with alumni from our traditional, our regular Grammy Camp, I suppose we could call it, along with Sam Hunt, the country artist. So these kids will be playing with Sam Hunt on that night.

On the 12th, they’ll be performing at Spaghettini and the Dave Koz Lounge in Beverly Hills, with the Warner Bros. artist, Andra Day. And then as if that’s not enough, from the 12th to the 14th, they’ll be at Capitol Studios recording a full album, as we talked about previously. And then on the evening of the Grammys, they will be playing in the jazz lounge at the Grammy after-party.

What is the average age group of these students, and how do you handle chaperoning?

We’re pretty buttoned-up. We have two what we call tour managers that are exclusively assigned to these kids for the entire week. They stay in the hotel with them; we have 24-hour security in the halls with these kids. They don’t get out from under our sort of 24-hour gaze. So we keep an eye on them. Secondly, these are high school kids, so the youngest of which is probably 15 and the oldest is likely 18.

What else do we need to know?

First, I want to recognize the efforts of David Sears and his team, who put this program together every year, and invest a lot of time and effort to make sure that this is a seamless experience for these students.

The other thing that I would want to point out is we also invite major music schools to come see these kids perform, and oftentimes-significant scholarships are offered. So whether it’s the Manhattan School of Music, the Berklee School of Music, and the Frost School… great music schools — Thornton, here in southern California — offer up literally millions of dollars in scholarships to these kids every year.

Working With a Studio Legend

Al Schmitt’s resume includes engineering and/or producing Henry Mancini, George Benson, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones, Diana Krall, Ray Charles, Norah Jones, Frank Sinatra, and other giants in jazz, along with Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan. I spent a few minutes talking with him about his participation in Grammy Camp – Jazz Session, and he filled me in on his role.

How many Grammy Awards do you now have, Al?

I have 23, all told.

That’s a lot. These students have quite an honor bestowed on them in getting to have you mix their recording. You’re one of the most in-demand and busiest engineers in the country. How involved are you in the process?

I donate my time to the mixing of the album. I mix the album every year. I get to see the kids, usually at the nominee party. Sometimes, when they’re recording, and they usually record here at Capitol, I’ll stop by and see them and I get to talk to them and all. I do it as a favor because I’m interested in kids and jazz. I think it’s great.

Once they record, how long until you’ve got it mixed and they’ve got an album in their hands?

Well, it usually takes me two, three days to mix the record. Then after that, it’s just a matter of going through the process of getting it mastered, and getting it pressed and whatever, and album covers done. It can take a couple of weeks. It’s certainly a great thing for these kids to have and later on in life, to be able to play it and say I recorded at Capitol and listen to this. It’s great.

When do you rest?

As little as possible. Somebody said it’s great to make a living doing something you would do for nothing. It’s great to make a living doing something you would do for nothing. Yeah.

They’re really lucky to get to work with you. The whole experience sounds phenomenal.

And I’m lucky to work with them. I work with some of these kids who are just — I mean, some of these kids are so outstanding, it’s unbelievable, as musicians, just fantastic. You look at these kids and say, “These kids are the future.” I love the fact that the future with jazz is with these young guys and girls. It’s amazing. It’s a bright future.

Learn more about Grammy Camp and all of its programs including Jazz Session by visiting


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