It was, in the words of this year’s guest performer, “music camp heaven.”
That’s how internationally renowned jazz trombonist Wycliffe Gordon described the 70th Fort Hays State University High Plains Music Camp after his performance with the honor jazz ensemble and faculty jazz ensemble Friday night at Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center.
Gordon has been named Best Trombone in the Downbeat Critics Poll four times and Trombonist of the Year nine times by the Jazz Journalist Association, and has received awards including the Satchmo from the Sarasota Jazz Club and the Louis Armstrong Memorial Prize from the Swing Jazz Culture Foundation.
He’s recorded 29 albums and been featured on a handful of others, and he teaches clinics at colleges across the country, including Julliard School of Music.
He worked with students and faculty of the FHSU camp for three days last week, and was impressed with its variety.
“It’s a very comprehensive camp. It’s not just a jazz camp. It’s not just a concert band. It’s everything,” he said.
“Very rarely do you have, at least that I’ve been to, a music camp that encompasses everything that I think they teach at a university,” he said.
More than 200 students — most from across Kansas, but also from Colorado, Oklahoma, Missouri and even Utah and Georgia — gathered at the FHSU campus to spend the week learning, auditioning, practicing and performing in a variety of music ensembles, the camp chorus and musical theater.
Enrollment numbers were down this year, camp director Ivalah Allen said. She attributed that in part to the camp being scheduled earlier than in years past, competing with Independence Day and family vacations, as well as the increasing number of sports camps offered in the summers.
But the quality and passion of the students remains high, she said.
“We’ve got some of the highest caliber of talent we’ve ever had,” she said. “Students are performing way beyond what we thought they would.”
The camp also is somewhat of a clinic for the faculty, many of whom teach in schools across the state, giving them an opportunity to hear new literature, Allen said.
Kay Werth taught oboe for this year’s camp and agreed the opportunity to meet new music professionals was a highlight of the camp.
Werth’s association with the camp started in 1973 as a 12-year-old music student. She continued as a camp counselor, and then, as part of the FHSU faculty, as camp director for five years.
“Probably my first love is the connection with the students,” she said Friday afternoon as she prepared for a session with student Cameron Karlin of Hays, faculty members Mike Ritzel and Devin Blackwood, and counselor Ben Williams.
Blackwood and Williams are music education majors at FHSU.
“The best part has been watching the students grow,” Willliams said.
“I remember how much fun I had and how important it was for me to come here,” said Blackwood, who attended the camp for five years.
“So I’m glad that now I’m able to come back here as an adult and try to create the same happy, positive experiences for the next generation.”