As vocalist, multi-instrumentalist (playing tenor saxophone as well as bass clarinet, flute, and piccolo), composer, and unique interpreter of the jazz tradition, Prof. Camille Thurman is quickly becoming one of the standard-bearers for the form. The New York City native’s vocal approach — including an impressive scatting ability — has been classified alongside those of Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter. In addition to practical instruction and Jazz Combo coaching, Prof. Thurman will be leading Schulich students in a Jazz Vocal Improv class during both the Fall and Winter semesters.
A charismatic and engaged musician and educator, Prof. Thurman has served as artist in residence at a number of prestigious music schools in North America and around the world. She was chosen by the State Department under the Fulbright Scholarship grant to perform in Paraguay and Nicaragua with her band, and she, with Prof. Darrell Green, was selected by the American Music Abroad Cultural Ambassador Program to travel and perform in various African countries, including Cameroon, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, and Mauritania.
“It’s amazing to see how music transcends language and connects people from all walks of life,” notes Prof. Thurman. “Each place I’ve toured with my band or with the Jazz At Lincoln Center orchestra, I’ve had young ladies run up to me and say, ‘This is awesome; hearing and seeing you as a woman perform.’ They ask questions, and I happily answer them with an understanding that moments like these are special. It’s a joy, honour, and privilege to be a performing artist.”
Mindfully connecting the present moment to the musical tradition that came before, Prof. Thurman encourages each individual and singular voice to be heard.
In advance of the coming semester, we connected with Prof. Thurman over e-mail about what she’s looking forward to at Schulich, her teaching philosophy, and a key feature she believes enables the best kind of music-making.
What are you most looking forward to in your new position at the Schulich School of Music?
I am looking forward to building a jazz vocal program that empowers and strengthens students, preparing and equipping them to have the necessary tools, skills, and confidence to go into the world and be dynamic musicians.
What is a goal of yours for this year?
Learning how to speak French is definitely a goal of mine this year, although I believe it may take me some time to learn and practice it. I love learning languages, especially through songs. I look forward to hopefully one day singing in French.
What are some elements that are important to your teaching philosophy?
Respect of the history of the music, having an understanding and sensitivity to the significance and relationship that exists between societal dynamics, along with culture, the creation process of music and the artist are all elements that are important to my teaching philosophy. Studying history and culture is critical to understanding the development of the music we play. The artist and the context of their cultural and social surroundings are elements that are inseparable to their identity and have a lot to do with the artistry they represent at that time and place in history. As musicians, it is essential that we observe this relationship and acknowledge this element in being creatives. When teaching students, I also believe it is very important to acknowledge the element of service in creating music. Being a musician is more than just being a good technician on your instrument. It’s about developing a sensitivity and understanding of the audience you are serving and using your talent to connect with them.
What do you want your students to leave Schulich knowing?
I want my students to leave Schulich School of Music with an appreciation for the history of Jazz, an understanding of the culture, a love and passion for the process of creating music, and the ability to confidently tap into their talents at the highest level for any performance scenario.
What is the advantage of being able to share your expertise in an academic environment?
The advantage of being able to share my expertise in an academic environment is having the experience and an understanding of how to apply theory and practice to “real time” performance situations and artistic development. Being a musician goes beyond practicing in the practice room and being perfect at executing and replicating tasks. It’s about learning how to adjust to your surroundings, learning how to tap into your instincts as an artist and access the training that was developed on your instrument for those situations when you need to create.
If you had a mantra/philosophy/phrase for where you are right now, what would it be?
Do everything you love with an open heart and with purpose, and always use your gift as a means of service to the community.
What is a key feature in enabling the best kind of music-making and music-learning experience?
Being a great listener, I believe, is a key feature in enabling the best music-making and -learning experience. Both making and learning music involve being a keen listener. There has to be a willingness to step outside of yourself and have sensitivity to others in the creative process. You cannot interact or comprehend what is happening musically if you’re not open and willing to listen. All music is a language that involves conversation. Within that language is expression, individuality, surprise — all elements that make us human and the musical experience relatable and enjoyable for everyone (the common ground). If you’re not willing to listen, then you’re not willing to partake in the conversation or learn how to communicate, and you will miss out on what could be a great musical experience.
What does mentorship mean to you?
Mentorship means everything to me. I wouldn’t be where I am as a musician and as a person had it not been for mentors taking the time to pour into me wisdom and guidance. Their presence in my musical journey helped shape my career. To be a musician is to be part of a community. We only succeed following the ones who have paved the way before us. It is our duty to keep the legacy and “community connectedness” flowing and the bar of excellence held high by doing the same — paying it forward, offering help and assistance to those in need. You never know how the impact of your willingness to mentor will shape someone. I was very blessed to have wonderful mentors on my musical journey: Antoine Roney, Bruce Williams, Abraham Burton, Bill Saxton, George Coleman, Tia Fuller, Mimi Jones, Dee Dee Bridgewater. I strive to do the same in whatever capacity I can for the upcoming generation. During the pandemic (May 2020), I started “The Haven Hang: Young Lioness Q&A/Virtual Mentorship Series” for young women/non-binary identifying musicians. I wanted to create a space that was safe for young musicians to ask questions, receive advice from respected women identifying artists sharing their journey, ask questions about developing as a musician and as a woman in the music industry as well as share resources for support. This series became an initiative to get more young women involved in the arts, instilling confidence, excellence, and representation while educating the community at large and raising awareness of gender equity. Starting this series has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me as an artist and educator, and I look forward to continuing the work while at McGill.
What’s on your “must” list for Montreal?
Visiting nature trails.
Is there a song you could listen to on repeat for an entire weekend?
Nick Drake’s “River Man.”
Is there a tune you would be happy to play every concert?
Joe Henderson’s “You Know I Care.”
Camille Thurman and the Darrell Green Trio: Live at Fraser WGBH | Our Day Will Come
Meet Camille Thurman: A Jazz Sensation Making History | Future 40
The Haven Hang #15: Young Lioness Musician Q&A with Camille Thurman featuring Jazzmeia Horn
The Haven Hang #14: Young Lioness Musician Q&A with Camille Thurman featuring Dianne Reeves