Teen Musicians Jazzed up for Summer

Young musicians learn the basics of playing jazz at the FM Kicks Band’s summer camps. (Photo/FM Kicks Band.)



Tim Johnson
FM Kicks Band


Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The FM Kicks Band has been jazzing up Moorhead and Fargo for 50 years, but the summer of 2024 is special. This year, the venerable corps of jazz musicians has debuted a trio of camps just for teen musicians, opening the door to the improvisation, syncopation and vibrant rhythms of America’s oldest style of homegrown music.
Led by executive director Tim Johnson, the Kicks Band created three sessions for young musicians in middle school and high school. The first took place in early June. Two more sessions are coming up in the weeks ahead – July 8-11 and July 29-Aug. 1. Johnson was pleased with the numbers for the initial four-day camp, which drew more than three dozen youth with experience playing in their schools’ bands. Those first jazz-campers were evenly distributed, he notes, between those with beginning, intermediate and advanced skills. Almost all plan to continue on to sessions two and three; however, a few openings still remained at the end of June.
Talented professional musicians work with the jazz campers. “All of them have played with Kicks at some time,” Johnson says. Like the band itself, their number includes music teachers from around the community. They lead the morning sessions in Fox Recital Hall at Minnesota State University Moorhead. Each day begins with a master class in the instruments favored by the teens. It’s followed by presentations on jazz improvisation and jazz history, then a jazz listening session. The pros discuss ideas for ear training and polishing listening skills. Finally, they spend an hour playing jazz.
“School band programs usually focus on classical-style Western music with an even beat,” Johnson observes. “Jazz is different. It’s about syncopation and a swing feel. Instead of sticking to musical charts, a big part is creating music in the moment … a skill that’s unlikely in a concert band.”
The musicians who joined founder Ed Christian son back in 1975 were probably more familiar with jazz than the young people attending the Kicks camps today. “Jazz was the dominant popular music back in the 1940s and 1950s. It was our parents’ music. Everybody knew the words,” Johnson, who joined the band as a trombonist in 1997. “Now there are more genres – rock, country, hip-hop, pop. Things evolve. Our main goal is to keep jazz alive and moving forward.”
While the Kicks camps are new, the band has earned a leading place in local music circles. The 17-member ensembles has been performing free outdoor concerts in local parks since 2018. Coming up: Sessions in Gooseberry Park from 7 to 8:30 pm. on July 18; at First Lutheran Church in Fargo from 6 to 7 pm. July 17; during the FM Farmers Market in Fargo’s Downtown Square from 10 am. to noon Aug. 2; and at the FM Kicks Band’s Jazz Festival all afternoon on Aug. 4.
In their quest to educate younger generations, the band also holds sessions in area schools. According to Johnson, who gathered the administrative reins from Christian son in 2011, the group has visited area schools as artists in residence, including not only Moorhead and Fargo, but also Haley, Lake Park, Woolworth-Glyndon-Felton and Roth say. They have sponsored the All-City High School Jazz Band Festival at the Sanctuary Event Center in April, and have introduced the history of jazz to 2,500 children as part of the Fifth Grade Learning Bank every year for more than a decade.
This summer’s schedule of jazz camps came about, says the director, because Botticelli, North Dakota, is expensive and a 200-mile drive away. “The International Peace Garden Music Camp is great, but we thought there should be something a little more accessible.”
The art of improvisation is best taught through experience. Johnson suggests, “The instructor might give the students three notes – the first, fifth and seventh of a chord. They’ll use with those notes throughout the song, knowing any combination will work.
“Then we introduce patterns like ‘call and response,’” he continues. “The instructor plays an easy pattern, and each student plays it back. They start to develop a repertoire of ideas. If they keep developing and listening to other jazz performers, they reach the point of developing their own ideas in the moment.”
He adds, “It’s a common misconception that musicians just go play. If you’ve never had any experience, you don’t know what to play. Accomplished jazz musicians have put in thousands and thousands of hours listening and creating their own ideas. It’s easy to improvise. It’s not as easy to actually sound good.”
For more information and to register for the FM Kicks Band’s upcoming jazz camps, go to www.FMKicksBand.com. Or email Johnson at fmkicksband@gmail.com.

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