The Native Jazz Workshop comes to the Sitka Fine Arts camp every summer, and is now in its 4th year. Vanessa Walker/KCAW photo

The Native Jazz Workshop comes to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp every summer, and is now in its 4th year. Vanessa Walker/KCAW photo

If you walk past the Sitka Fine Arts Camp on any given day,  you may hear the sounds of a saxophone, flute or trumpet emanating from one of the buildings. But this week at camp, the Native Jazz Workshop was in session–and students took their passion for jazz to a new level: by learning how it intersects with native culture.

KCAW’s Vanessa Walker attended a class session and filed this report.

Downloadable audio.

“Raise your hand if you’re native,” said Ed Littlefield, a professional drummer, born and raised in Sitka. “Everybody raise your hand, because you are native of somewhere,” he said.

Everyone is native somewhere: for the instructors of the Native Jazz Workshop at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, that is one of the main ideas they are trying to get across. That is — we all experience music in a way that’s intertwined with culture and identity – and students can use that in their work

“Native is a word I’m trying to open up into everybody’s vocabulary. I’m native. I’m Alaska-native, I’m also Native-Alaskan. I’m also Russian, German and Italian,” Littlefield said.

He’s one of the founders of the workshop, which is now entering its fourth year.

On the first day of class, the four instructors started out by playing several pieces. One featured Dennis Yerry on a native flute. He’s from upstate New York and is of Iroquois and Seneca descent. Littlefield was on the drums, while Christian Fabian, who was born in Sweden and raised in Germany, played the upright bass, and Reuel Lubag, who is Filipino, played the piano.

Yerry says that mixing and matching is what the Native Jazz Workshop is all about — weaving traditional melodies into very modern compositions.

“Part of the work that we do is going back to our indigenous roots, and exploring those melodies, and those rhythms and the feeling that is behind them, and try to bring that out,” Yerry said.

On this particular cold and rainy morning, seven students are tackling a jazz fundamental that takes years for even the most seasoned musicians to master – improvising.

“When I think of a jazz improv, it’s literally free composing a symphony, a beautiful melody,” Littlefield told the class.

For this lesson, students are limited to using just one chord, the F major triad, which contain the notes F, A and C.

“You can begin improvising over those notes,” he said. “It makes improvisation less scary, because you know exactly which three notes you’re going to play.”

The key is to know how to combine those notes, on the fly, and make it sound good.

Wielding instruments like saxophones, trumpets, and the upright bass, one by one, students begin to improvise solos.

“I think everybody gets a little stage fright sometimes,” said  20-year-old Josh Wheeler, who plays the trumpet. “Anyone when they first start out it’s pretty scary. But, over the years, when you get more experience, you just learn,” he said.

After that they dove right into song form– that’s the structure of a particular composition, like how many bars it has.

“The song form is the basis for jazz and music,” Littlefield said. “You have to know where it starts and ends, being able to feel that form and feel the pulse inside of that is really important.”

To feel the pulse, students clapped. But, pretty soon Littlefield and the students were on their feet clapping and stomping to the beat, while Christian Fabian played his bass.

Later in the day, Yerry taught a short lesson drawing on his Iroquois and Seneca background.

“Have you guys here heard of the Iroquois?” Yerry asked the class.

“It’s what the French called us,” he said. “But our name for ourselves is Haudenosaunee, which means people of the long house.” Yerry then sang a Haudenosaunee friendship song.

Fabian, the workshop’s co-founder says that kind of sharing– and friendship– is what the workshop is all about.

 “Our general idea is that we share our heritage, and get to know each other better and make a better place,” he said. “Traditionally, the way we have been brought up is always separate. We all have different backgrounds, but we have a common ground,” he said.

 And for the instructors and students of the course, that common ground is jazz.

Click through the slideshow below for pictures of the second day of the week-long course.