Back in August of this year I had the good fortune to attend the Welbourne Jazz Camp. This is the third year for this camp and the first that I was able to attend. In fact I think this was the first time anyone from Toronto has attended (yay me!) so I thought I’d share a little about the camp here on TLH.com in case anyone is interested.
What is Welbourne?
Simply put, Welbourne Jazz Camp is a week long music and dance camp in the countryside of Virginia. It’s run by Amy Johnson and Ben Polcer from New Orleans, LA. Amy is a long-time dancer and event organizer (such as ULHS) and Ben is a full time musician in NOLA.
If I had to draw a comparison to anything I would say Welbourne is a combination of Lindystock and ULHS; Lindystock for the chill hang out atmosphere in the country and ULHS for the dancing and the amazing trad jazz music. If that doesn’t make sense to you then stick with me, I’ll explain more below.
The venue and accommodations are all at the Welbourne Inn, an historic and beautiful mansion just outside Middleburg, VA. By day we would break up into our groups and work on our dance or instruments, and in the evenings we would hang out on the front porch and play music, dance, socialize, etc. Meals are included and prepared by a fantastic kitchen crew each and every day.
Due to space limitations at the venue the camp is capped to 30 people. As such you have to apply for admittance into the camp. That’s not to say you need to be at a certain “level” in your dancing or playing per se, but mainly so the organizers can coordinate everyone and make sure everyone gets the most out of the week.
Incidentally they offer a “jazz vacation” package too if you’re not interested in the classes and just want to hang out. You are also welcome (indeed even a bit encouraged) to find accommodations elsewhere so the camp can accept more people during the week.
The Dance Track
Alright, full disclosure here: I did not sign up for the dance track, only the music track. What I’m about to say here then is based on observation from time I spent just being around the classes as they happened.
After breakfast each day the dancers we’re broken up into groups and sent to two or three classes before the dance track ended in mid-afternoon. All of the classes were taught by Mike Faltesek, Giselle Anguizola, Nathan Bugh, and Laura Manning. The beauty of Welbourne is that with the small numbers at the camp each person got a lot of individual attention. Aside from the classes each dancer was also offered an afternoon or two of private lessons with some of the teachers.
With that said, if you are used to intense, jam packed workshops with class after class and dance after dance then you should know Welbourne is not really setup that way. You have the afternoons free to either join in on the Music Track (if you signed up) or to do whatever you want. From what I saw most dancers used the afternoons to head into town, swim in the creek, explore the 500 acre horse farm (yes, the farm is 500 acres!) or just chill out.
In the evenings there was a dance after dinner on the porch from about 7 to midnight. These dances were all live music and a mix of the music teachers and students. A outdoor dance floor is just in front of the porch and provides enough space for several couples to dance.
The Music Track
Music classes started each day after lunch and had a similar format as the dance track: the music coordinator broke us up into our groups and setup 2 to 3 classes for each of us each day. Each music class was taught by some combination of the teaching staff consisting of Ben Polcer, Meschiya Lake, Jason Jurzak, Aurora Nealand, Charlie Halloran and Russel Welch. Classes covered a whole range of topics; obviously there was ensemble playing with each group but also classes focused on musical arrangement, track recording, ear training, improvisation, technique, playing live on stage, and practice techniques. Oh, music students also got a couple of private lessons as well.
Typically after each class we all reconvened on the porch to perform what we just learned for the others.
I enrolled as a drummer which I’ve been working on for about 3 years now. This camp was exactly what I was looking for in that I really wanted to play with a mix of people and get feedback from other musicians (i.e. not just my drum teacher) all in a lower pressure environment. And if you’re familiar with the musicians that taught us you know that they are the best in the world in this genre of music and have a wealth of information to share with you.
Now, if this piques your interest then you’re probably asking yourself what I did when I first applied – “How good do I have to be to sign up for this?”. Initially I thought I would have to be at least intermediate level on my instrument if not outright advanced to keep up with this. Having now attended I can tell you this isn’t the case. The coordinators and teachers are very good at arranging all of the classes so that you can get something out of this no matter what your level. As long as you know the basics of your instrument (chords, scales, etc.) then you’ll be fine. And if you are at the advanced level I would still recommend this camp. Again, with this calibre of talent around you you are bound to learn a great deal.
As I mentioned above, each evening was a porch party and dance. The band and music students took turns playing a range of songs all night long. There were also a few “special events” through the course of the week. On the Saturday the town was invited to the Inn for a Garden Party where band performed for everyone. There was a campfire night where we all trekked to the other side of the farm for the evening to hang out and play some tunes around the fire. Finally, the last night was Performance Night where a show was arranged for the locals to showcase the dance routines (including lindy hop, tap and mob dances) and songs from the music students. The evening music was then led by the band and some of the music students.
I think the video below captures the vibe of nightly porch parties the best. This was taken on the last night of the camp after the performances were all complete.
Should I go?
That’s a tough one for me to answer as each of us are in a different place in our dancing or playing and have different goals. Time and cost are of course factors too. I suppose Welbourne is a little on the pricey side but don’t forget that it includes accommodations, meals AND instruction every day. Based on that I actually think it’s a bit of a steal.
I think if you truly want to become a musician in this genre of music then there is no better opportunity than this to get exposure to all aspects of the music and improve not only your playing but on all aspects of being in a band. I can honestly say this was one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had.
On the dance side I’m not so sure. Obviously the teachers are top-tier and as I said you will get a lot of individual attention. But I suppose it’s up to you to decide if that’s enough to justify the cost and time to attend; maybe taking local or nearby workshops are a more economical option for you. On the other hand, if you want to get away somewhere beautiful for a week, hang with cool people, and also dance a bunch to fun live music then sign up.
Please do come talk to me if you are interested and want to learn more about the Welbourne Jazz Camp. I know I will be signing up again next year for sure.