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When I Grow Up, I Want To Go To Camp…

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In this Jazz Guitar Today interview, guitar enthusiast Michael Davis describes his experience at Frank Vignola’s Big Jersey Guitar Camp.

JGT Editor Bob Bakert: Tell me about your experience with Frank Vignola’s Big Jersey Guitar Camps.

MD: Each one is better than the last, and all have overwhelmingly exceeded my expectations. My first camp was in 2019 and I’ve not missed a summer camp in New Jersey since. It is as close to heaven on earth as it gets. It is a small group of people who love music, jazz guitar, learning, and being with others of kindred spirit as much as I do–and this includes the world’s most accomplished artist-instructors as well as us campers who represent a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. At Frank’s camps, the learning is instantly applicable as we begin playing jazz standards on our guitars immediately after breakfast and will stop only when we force ourselves to take a nap to refuel ourselves for the next day. There’s also the fun. And lots and lots of laughs with a few cannoli here and there. But what happens at guitar camp ultimately stays at guitar camp!

Michael getting the fist bump from Frank

Bob: Why did you get involved with Frank’s Guitar Camps in the first place?

MD: That’s an easy one, at least at the surface. Not only is Frank Vignola one of the most accomplished jazz guitarists of our time, I think he may well be the best musical instructor I’ve ever witnessed. While playing jazz guitar is primarily an avocation for me, I have had many years of private study in my primary musical areas of conducting, voice, and piano. I’ve been blessed to work with enormously gifted teachers and mentors who change/d my life in more ways than I can count, yet Frank has this uncanny ability of taking the most complex musical concepts or techniques and boiling them down into digestible bites for everyone. He has this natural and disarming ability to meet us where we are regardless of style, genre, our level of study, aspirations, etc. I believe it was Einstein who defined genius as “taking the complex and making it simple,” and that describes Frank’s teaching perfectly in my experience. I knew this about Frank before attending my first summer camp, but it was immediately obvious the other artist-instructors he included in his camp were cut from the same cloth. 

Bob: What are some of your most memorable highlights from the last four guitar camps you’ve attended?

MD: There have been many once-in-a-lifetime moments I will always remember. For example, there was the first time I had a chance to play a tune with Frank and Gary Mazzaroppi–whom I first heard when they were part of Les Paul’s Trio. I was so nervous I could barely hold onto my pick, but I did it! Or there’s the time our learning group was receiving feedback from Jimmy Bruno, who is the king of timing, who said “the tempo never moved, great job.” I have seldom felt prouder than I did in that moment, partially because I’d focused on metronome work based on tips I received from Jimmy at the prior year’s camp and all that work paid off! This past year, Gene Bertoncini received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Loft and he was surrounded by some of the best jazz guitarists in the world with each sharing how much he, his music, and his teaching meant to them. The room was overflowing with love and gratitude for Gene. It was an incredibly special moment. The camps are always filled with unexpected surprises like these. 

Happy camper (Michael Davis) with Jimmy Bruno

Bob: What do you feel you have learned from being a part of Frank’s Guitar Camps?

MD: I have more deeply studied 80 tunes during my four camps alone. But beyond the songs, each year I pick three technique-building things I want to work on for the entire year between camps. While Frank’s teaching voice is ever-present in my mind, I especially think of his guidance in seeking a good tone and how to structure my practice sessions. Frank has also taught me how to be a better ensemble musician overall: how to listen, balance, support, and encourage each other when playing. Gene Bertoncini taught me how to begin expanding my fretboard knowledge–which was quite terrible in year one to be honest as I mainly played guitar by ear. James Chirillo taught me how to begin practicing arpeggios with long stretches and approach the guitar with efficiency and intention. Gary Mazzaroppi taught us how to approach guitar-bass duets. Vinny Raniolo, who has to be some cosmic extension of Lou Pallo, has taught me more chord forms and shared more rhythm tips than I can possibly count. Ken Smith has helped me think about how to create arrangements. Doug Munro provided more clarity and practical approaches for understanding Brazilian rhythms for me than anyone, while Frank Sole taught me stretches and techniques to take better care of my hands and body when playing guitar. This year I have been working on consistent scale fingering thanks to Jimmy Bruno, using tips from Ed Cherry to find my groove (or figure out if I ever had one), and continued arpeggio and inversion work ala Frank Vignola. The list is truly endless. With master artists like this, every word they share about music or every demonstration they play is packed with invaluable and practical tips.

Bob: You clearly enjoy these camps. Is there anything else you love about Frank’s camps?

MD: At this point, I love it all really: the reunion-like conversations at check-in, impromptu meals with other campers and instructors, the selection of standard tunes we all need to know or play better, the learning structures, the soft camp t-shirts…and did I mention the pasta in New Jersey?

The whole gang

Bob: Pasta and cannoli aside, why should someone consider going to one of Frank’s Big Jersey Guitar Camps? What would you tell a buddy to encourage them to come to camp with you? 

MD: I’d tell them if you want to improve your jazz guitar playing then sign up and show up. If you attend and participate, you will get better. Some of us now refer to this as the “Big Jersey Effect.” It is also a great hang with the best vibe. You’ll have one of the best weeks of your life and make great friendships you wouldn’t have made otherwise. Les Paul would often comment on his variety-filled sets on Monday nights asking his audience: “Where else on earth can you get a show like this?” I’d ask a similar question about Frank Vignola’s Big Jersey Guitar Camps: “Where else on earth can you get a camp like this?” My answer to both questions: nowhere. 

For information about Frank Vignola’s future guitar camps, please visit www.bigjerseyguitarcamps.com

Michael Davis has served as the Assistant Artistic Director of the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir since 2002. For more info please visit www.indychoir.org

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