In the early to mid-1990s, JJ Morgan was at the center of a new sound in San Francisco. As the owner of the Up and Down Club in the SoMa District, he booked innovative musicians and bands who were fusing hip-hop and jazz, creating what became known as acid jazz. Morgan became close friends with the artists, who came from groups like the Charlie Hunter Trio, Human Flavor, and Alphabet Soup.
By 1999 Morgan was burnt out on city living and moved to Truckee, where he opened Moody’s Bistro Bar & Beats in 2002 with chef Mark Estee. Yet for Morgan, who was used to the culture and diversity and world-class music of the Bay Area, something was missing. He started bringing in jazz musicians to play at Moody’s, but, as Adam Theis, a trombonist who co-founded Jazz Mafia and who used to play at the Up and Down Club, said, “He was not making as big as an impact as he wanted. People weren’t lining up out the door to see jazz.”
Morgan felt he could be going further to make a splash with jazz in a mountain community more focused on skiing and mountain biking than music.
“We had live music at Moody’s, I was getting my personal fill that way, but I kind of wanted more,” he said.
The “more” Morgan was looking for turned out to be a jazz camp for kids. He first started talking about in 2005 when Theis showed up at Moody’s, and the two agreed to start the camp together. But as the date for the first camp in the summer of 2005 started approaching, Theis realized no one had taken up the role of musical director. He decided to make the position his own.
“Part of JJ’s genius is that if he had sat down and asked me to be the musical director it would have scared me,” Theis said. “He is kind of a visionary. He is not a musician but something even more important to musicians — one of the people who connect the dots from musicians to the public.”
Almost two decades later, hundreds of kids ages 9 through 18 have gone through Moody’s Jazz Camp, which takes place for one week every year at the end of June in Moody’s alcoves, back alley, and parking lot, at no cost to families. (The camp went on hiatus for two years during Covid.) The goal is not to teach kids how to play an instrument, but rather to have children mentored by accomplished musicians and expose them to the real world of jazz, with all its rawness and improvisation, as well as learning to perform and talk to an audience. The camp’s impact has been far-reaching. Not only has its Jazz Artists in Residence brought world-class performers to Truckee for the community to see on Moody’s stage, but it has also shaped many of the camp’s graduates, who have gone on to study jazz music in college and form bands of their own.
The first year of the camp there were around 10 kids. Theis brought in a fellow horn player from Jazz Mafia, Joe Cohen, and Morgan invited saxophonist Josh Jones and his band from Oakland for a few days; then Will Blades, who plays the organ along with other instruments, and guitarist Will Bernard showed up, along with jazz pianist Victor Noriega from Seattle.
“That was cool because kids were getting different perspectives from different musicians for a whole week,” Morgan recalled. “The whole point of the camp is to get shit you can’t get up here. The whole point of it is exposing these kids to something that’s not available here.”
During the week the professional musicians would perform shows that Morgan called “mind-blowing” at night at Moody’s, with students occasionally joining in. The camp would culminate in a concert in the back parking lot for parents and the community.
As word spread, the number of participants kept growing every year, and is now up to 65 kids.
“The parents kept telling me, ‘Dude, you are changing my kid’s life,’” Morgan shared.
One example of this was the impact of the camp on reserved kids.
“When you come to camp you solo, and solo and shy don’t really go together,” Morgan explained. “I watched them come out of their shell and feel comfortable enough to do that. Once you do that you have taken a really big step forward.”
Just by getting exposed to top-notch musicians from outside the area and having conversations with them opens students’ eyes to a whole other world, Morgan said.
“The kids are hobnobbing and talking to and learning from these really cool people in a million ways — they live in a big city, they are color blind, the way they talk, every part of it, it fires you up as a kid — you get to see the finished product,” he said.
Theis also noticed a change in the students, many of whom came back year after year.
“Overall, the bar started getting raised and the confidence level was going up and the fearless spirit started happening … It’s all about going for it and supporting each other,” he said. “That started happening after four or five years. That’s the true spirit of jazz — starting to understand that you can just let go.”
The camp evolved over the years to have a full band of teachers, including drummer, bass player, piano, saxophone, guitar, and trombone, as well as special guests like hip-hop artists, DJs and a vocalist. Around six years ago, University of Nevada, Reno jazz program students started teaching at the camp, along with music teachers from the local high schools.
Moody’s Jazz Camp has had an indelible impact on its graduates. When I interviewed Morgan in early April, he was leaving for Reno that evening to see one of his former students, Vincenzo Pellegrino, perform at his senior recital for the UNR jazz program.
A Truckee High graduate and jazz pianist, Pellegrino attributes his decision to major in music to the jazz camp.
“If I didn’t have that outlet with JJ and all those musicians, I don’t think I would be the musician I am today and I don’t think I would have studied it in college,” he said. “The camp brought me and my friends together, we formed our own bands, recorded a little album with Adam Theis. The experience I got there really helped me become the musician I am today.”
In addition to being in several jazz quartets and trios, Pellegrino has a soul-rock-jazz-hip-hop group, Tha Exchange, that opened for George Clinton and Parliament at the Truckee Regional Park Amphitheater last August.
Pellegrino is not the only jazz camp graduate to go on to study music in college. Jordy Guldman, who graduated from Truckee High with Pellegrino, is currently studying jazz trumpet at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio. And drummer Henry Plumb is graduating from the Berklee College of Music in Boston this year.
“We have had a bunch of kids going to college for music, but none of them were musical prodigies,” Theis said. “If camp wouldn’t have happened maybe they would have taken different courses … I can only imagine what it would have meant to me when I was 10 to hang with all these musicians.”
One of the current stars of Moody’s Jazz Camp is Scarlet Wightman, a 17-year-old junior at Truckee High who plays the trumpet. This summer will be her third year participating. She plans on studying music, most likely jazz, after she graduates. She says the camp has been invaluable to her growth as a musician.
“Getting to play with musicians from other schools who were more at my level brings new perspective about how I can perform,” she said. “It’s really valuable to hear the teachers, they are super good musicians. It’s cool to hear them and get inspired by that. Also getting to perform in a restaurant gives me a really good idea about what it feels like to perform and play professionally.”
As for the future, Moody’s Jazz Camp will stay largely the same — Morgan insists on it not moving to a fancier venue to retain the grittiness of practicing in the parking lot — but there have been some new additions, such as bringing in producers to teach kids how to use software and build beats, and Bay Area hip-hop artists like Dublin, Radioactive, and Mani Draper have taught kids how to write songs. Most importantly, the camp will remain complimentary.
“I think it’s imperative for him to keep it free,” Theis said. “He really wants to keep it accessible. It’s a real gift to the community.”
Moody’s Jazz Camp takes place June 26 to July 1. For more information, visit moodysjazzcamp.com.