France : The Jazz Summer School Experience

By John Curtis, pianist

In August 2009 I was fortunate enough to participate in the Advanced Improviser’s Course with the Mediterranean Jazz Summer School held at a beautiful old chateau (Chateau du Bijou) near Chomerac in the Ardeche department in southern France about midway between Lyon and Marseille just to the left of the Rhone River. There was a singers’ course running in parallel and we all lived at the chateau for the week of the courses. In the food department we were exceedingly well looked after by a French family who normally ran a small restaurant in Chomerac I think. Whatever, it was great French fare with wine on tap. Breakfast of course included coffee and croissants. Dinner was usually quite comprehensive.

The school was run by Clive Fenner, an excellent drummer from East London and a very nice person. He has been running the course every year for quite a few years now as well as a sister course in Havana for Cuban music. He was ably assisted by a number of excellent musicians from the UK working as tutors on the course including two pianists, a saxophonist, a bass player and two singers. The students included about twenty singers, two pianists, two drummers, three saxophonists and two guitarists. We had people from the UK, Holland, Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, Germany and, of course, Australia.

As part of the selection process you were asked to outline your jazz experience including the instruments played, length of time playing jazz, music qualifications, individual lessons taken, courses/workshops attended, band experience, reading ability, improvisational ability, how easily you were able to learn new material, repertoire, strengths as a musician plus what areas you thought you needed to develop in your playing and what particular things you were hoping to learn or get from the course.

Each day first thing after breakfast we started with some physical movement exercises which sometimes included timing-related activities. Then typically during the day we would participate in small group workshops learning to perform assigned pieces as a group, choir workshops (which included the instrumentalists), listening workshops designed to facilitate transcription and learning by ear, specialist workshops (for example the two pianists had specialists sessions with the principal piano tutor Simon Purcell), big band workshops and, in the afternoon after lunch, rehearsals with individual singers. The pianists were in demand for these rehearsals, so the afternoons were a lot busier than I expected. They were nominally for individual practice but who’s complaining.

After dinner each evening, we had a jam session which, as often as not, went well beyond midnight. The tutors also participated and there were some great performances helped along by a liberal supply of beer and wine. The catch was we had to get up quite early in the morning so by the end of the week you can imagine we were all a bit ragged.To round out the course we put on a concert for the Chomerac locals. The audience was fortunately very appreciative and the jam session afterwards concluded a great week. We all parted company the next morning and I took the train back to Paris to meet Lynne who was arriving there that day.

I have to thank Ray Hood for putting me onto the course. Some will know Ray as a regular attendee of our jam sessions in the past. As I recall Agus Batara has also attended the course. Unfortunately, Clive Fenner has been sick (1) and I don’t know whether the course will continue to be offered. I would certainly be happy to recommend it if it is. The one-week immersion was a very enjoyable experience and it definitely helped me to further my jazz objectives.

John Curtis

The debonair Curtis returned from this course a different piano player, bursting with new ideas and I had to steal all his hottest licks all over again…

(1) Clive Fenner died in 2019 but the courses in France continue.


Clive Fenner 1949 to 2019

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