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Adult Education

Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camps provide respite to working professionals

Carolyn Leonhart
Gene Bertoncini
Ike Sturm and Janet Planet at Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camp in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin
Cynthia Bane (singer) and Howard Leikin (guitarist) at Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camp in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin

Way before PR and marketing professional Bob DeRosa was a co-owner of the Tritone Jazz Fantasy Camps, he was a jazz camper himself. “This thing [Tritone camp] is really my fault. I started to learn the bass at the age of 42. I went to the Jazz in July program at Moravian College for three years in the ’90s and I had a ball. But I saw that the mixing of young and old can be a messy situation. Adults are coming back to their instruments now with time and discretionary income and they didn’t like to be ‘shown up’ by high school kids with incredible chops. So I knew that we should keep the camp to adults over 21.”

In 1998, DeRosa got together with educators Fred Sturm and Jim Doser, both of whom had ties to the Eastman School of Music, and the three established a summer jazz camp with a different sort of adults-only credo. The response was as much or more than they could have hoped for. The second year, they expanded to a second location in Wisconsin. This year, the camp will be held July 11-16 in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin and July 25-30 in Rochester, New York.

The camp limits its faculty-to-student ratio at both locations to 5:1. Each camp has an average of 35-50 participants. “We want that personal touch,” DeRosa says. “We want people to enjoy themselves without being elbow-to-elbow.” The numbers give them enough for one big band and several small combos, as well as plenty of vocalists. And they stick to mainstream jazz.

Importance of Faculty

Among the faculty at the Tritone camps are guitarist Gene Bertoncini, who has been at every camp. In Wisconsin, singer Janet Planet and pianist John Harmon are regular instructors. This year singer Carolyn Leonhart and drummer Ted Poor will be aboard at the upstate NY location. Among guests artists in the past have been Marian McPartland, Terell Stafford, Marlena Shaw and Bill Charlap. But DeRosa and Tritone look for more than name recognition when assembling faculty. “For our instructors, we don’t just want monster players. We need a trifecta: a great player, a great person and a great teacher.”

Sounding very much like an enthusiastic camper himself, DeRosa raved about the instructors, calling Harmon “a real hidden treasure,” and Poor “such a natural drummer.” Most of all, DeRosa is pre-occupied with making sure that the campers have as good as time as he had back in the day. Playing the bass gives him an opportunity to make the rounds. “I’m always playing with the different groups, just because they always seem to need a bass player,” he said, laughing. “I’m talking to people all the time.”

Although they also do a formal survey and look for suggestions to improve the camp, DeRosa has his own objective measurement of the camp’s success or failure. “The real acid test is that they come back year after year,” he said. “Naturally, the campers develop close relationships with the faculty. A lot of the guitarists end up studying with Gene [Bertoncini].”

The Campers’ Perspective

I spoke with one such camper/student, guitar-playing venture capitalist Jeff Davison from New Castle, Del., who has attended Tritone for the last three years, and plans to keep that streak going. He too spoke of the faculty as one of the major reasons for his loyalty to the camp. “There’s a lot of mutual respect and affection among the faculty,” said Davison. “That quality makes the experience really special.” For working professionals like Davison, there’s a social aspect as well. “I’ve made a lot of friends there. We’re all passionate about the music. And they’re interesting people.” For Davison the camp had a real effect on his mastery of the instrument. “I had put away the guitar for about 10 years. [Going to Tritone] accelerated my playing and really motivated me.”

Davison believes that another reason for the success of the camp is the size and structure. “They limit the camps to about 50 people. And they put us in groups, with one of the faculty as our leader. They start your week with a sense of purpose, because you have to do a concert at the end of the week. At first you wonder what’s going to happen, but by the time you get to Friday night, it all works.”

Another camper, Chris Jankowski, a trumpet player by avocation and an anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic by vocation, had a similar take on the effect of the faculty. “They’re phenomenal. They take every level – from beginners to pros. It’s hard to find someone who can educate that well at so many different levels.”

Jankowski is what you might call a Tritone lifer, having been to the camp every year since it started. He attends with his wife, who is a saxophonist. And now they bring their daughter who is 9 and, for now, just a listener. “We first brought her when she was 3 months old. You see, this is the one thing we schedule every year that we don’t change for anything.”

Jankowski sees this camp as different from many out there in part because of the nurturing atmosphere. “I’ve heard from other friends about how the camps end up being like cutting sessions. There’s none of that at Tritone. In fact, some of the most profound moments have occurred with the least accomplished musicians. You watch them work through a chart with difficult changes and you see their faces light up.”

Making It Work

Non-competitive though it may be, the camp demands the full attention of the campers who have little free time during the week. At Tritone, sessions start at 9 am and often go until 11:30 pm. And no one complains. “Looking at our schedule, you can see that they hardly have time to go to the bathroom” said DeRosa, laughing. “We kick off the morning with a ‘Rhythming’ session to get the juices flowing.” Interestingly, one of the most popular classes is the theory class, though he said that they’ve learned NOT to hold that in the late afternoon, when a darkened classroom can signal nap-time even for 40- and 50-somethings.

I wondered what DeRosa thought was most attractive about the camp to these adults. It was clear that this was a question he had pondered himself more than once. “I think it’s the ability to re-invigorate themselves and to get away from the quotidian life,” explained DeRosa. “Most of these folks are professionals in the workplace – they’re physicians, dentists, attorneys, you name it. They’re leading high-pressure lives. So they’re looking for that release. We try to create that atmosphere. Look, I spend a lot of time with these folks, but I generally don’t ask them about their work, because I know they want to get away.”

DeRosa, a busy speechwriter himself, makes it clear that this is a labor of love for him too. “It’s not a huge moneymaker for us, but it’s a kick, believe me.” That effort is not lost on the camp participants. “There’s a special place in heaven for those guys,” said Jankowski.

For more information about the Tritone camps, go to their web site.

Originally Published