Bill Summers wants to know if they’re having fun. But a more important question is do they realize just how lucky they are to be playing music with Summers? Do they realize that not all high school music camp clinicians can make a direct call to Quincy Jones simply by pressing the redial button?
Summers did this Tuesday morning.
He wasn’t showing off; he simply wanted Jones to offer a few words of encouragement to the handful of high school jazz hopefuls at the Southern University Alvin Batiste Jazz Institute’s second Summer Jazz Camp. It was important, as he saw it, to expose the students to jazz.
Jazz as Summers played it when he was traveling around the world with Herbie Hancock. Jazz as he plays it now.
It’s fun, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.
“We know the songs now, so tomorrow, we’re going to have fun with them,” he said. “That’s how things should be. Life should be fun, your job should be fun, your relationships should be fun - paying your bills should be fun. It’s time to lighten up; time to have fun playing the music.”
Summers said this on June 22, the third day of the week-long camp. Campers had finished a run-through of Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” kicked off by Summers’ African flute introductory.
But Summers wasn’t playing a flute. No, he played the introduction on a Heineken bottle.
Hey, it works. And the bottle was the perfect vehicle for his composition. Yes - his composition.
Summers was 22 years old when he composed the introduction for a revised version of Hancock’s song. You’ll see no writer’s credit attributed to Summers on the CD label, but that doesn’t change the fact that the composition is his.
And here he sits, playing his part of “Watermelon Man” with seven jazz camp high schoolers.
“I know Bill, and I just called and asked if he would come help us at the camp,” Herman Jackson said.
Jackson teaches percussion at Southern. He also teaches in the Alvin Batiste Jazz Institute with director Harry Anderson.
And it’s Anderson who has put together the rest of the jazz camp faculty, which is rounded out by Donald Evans and Michael Esneault.
“Last year, we had more kids, but I prefer a smaller camp,” Anderson said. “Herman is in one room working with the percussion and rhythm players, Michael is in another working students on the piano and Donald is in another working with the horn players.”
And Anderson? He works with the bass and rhythm section players, while Summers brings it all together.
?It’s like you’re getting private lessons,” Anderson said. “Everyone is getting individual instruction, and you won’t find that in a big camp.”
Still, there may be one drawback to smaller numbers - clinicians don’t know how many players of each kind of instrument they will receive on the applications. But that’s OK.
“We just arrange things according to what we have,” Anderson said.
Besides, some of these students play more than one instrument.
Take Byron Wicker, for instance. He’ll be a sophomore at McKinley High School in the fall and is a second-year camper. Wicker played trumpet and piano at the campers’ performance, which served as a warm-up act on June 24 for jazz saxophonist Michael Phillips, the finale performer in Southern University’s Classical Jazz on the Bluff series.
The campers’ song lineup was Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” the jazz song “Camellia” and, of course, Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”
“It’s been fun,” Joseph Newman said.
He’ll be a junior at McKinley High School in the fall. Both he and Wicker play in McKinley’s jazz program.
“I was here last year, but I played trumpet,” Newman said. “This is my first year to play bass.”
And as the bass player, as Summers said, it’s Newman’s responsibility to “hold it together.”
That’s what the bass does. Drums keep the beat, but the bass plays it straight, many times coming in first and holding the song together.
“I feel like I’m getting more instruction this year,” Newman said. “I’m more confident.”
“And we’re learning more technique,” Wicker added. “We’re learning more about the origins of jazz.”
Part of that lesson is jazz history, and Summers is a part of that. He’s lived it.
And he’s here not only to teach but to offer advice.
Summers’ career has been both varied and successful. He’s composed scores for such films as The Color Purple and television miniseries Roots. He also has performed with such names as Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, Sting, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Billy Cobham and Sheila E., not to mention Michael Jackson and, of course, Quincy Jones.
And he started his career playing with the legendary keyboardist Herbie Hancock and his group the Headhunters.
Yet he didn’t receive credit for composing the introduction to the revised version of “Watermelon Man.”
“Madonna has used that introduction, Prince has used it, even some hip-hop musicians,” he said. “Herbie has made millions off of it. And I asked him about it one time. He said, ?Remember, you’re just a percussionist.’”
Hancock wasn’t disparaging Summers. He was simply speaking truth. Sure, Summers plays other instruments, but percussionists are hard-pressed to land record deals in the music business.
Summers is one of a few that has such a deal, and he’s been making records since 1977.
“I’m not saying anything bad about Herbie,” Summers said. “It’s just that I was 22 years old, and I didn’t know the business. And that’s what I want to talk to you about while I’m here. You’ve got to learn the business - you’ve got to take care of the business side if you become a musician. It’s as important as the music.”
And the music definitely is important. It’s important to learn, important to play.
But most importantly, it should be fun.