During the second week in September, Kerry Challinor attended the annual American Banjo Camp, held on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula.
The 2016 camp, located at Pilgrim Firs Conference Centre near Port Orchard, was both inspiring and challenging. Approximately 130 people attended this year, housed in cabins or lodges – there may even have been a tent or two. Three hearty meals a day, plus snacks, made sure that none of us went hungry.
What made the camp so outstanding was the quality instruction from world famous exponents of banjo, and the fine local musicians that the organisers had persuaded to come along to support the jam sessions.
The inspiring old-time banjo instructors included several of the world’s most renowned clawhammer players: Ken Perlman, Joe Newberry, Michael Miles, Riley Baugus, Bob Carlin, and Laura Smith. Instructors for the bluegrass banjo track were the legendary Alan Munde, Janet Davis, Bill Evans, James McKinney, Michael Munford, and Mike Stahlman. All of the instructors either led, or sat in on, jam sessions.
On arrival, we were greeted by the amazing Canote brothers jamming with half a dozen students near the registration table. On the first of the three nights, players could sign up for the open mike or the band scramble. For the latter, musicians were divided into groups of four by ability and style, and had 45 minutes to select a song, decide upon an arrangement and practice it. The open mike/band scramble was an opportunity to jump-start the weekend’s learning.
Spoilt for Choice
During the three day camp, musicians could choose from the following tracks: bluegrass banjo, old-time banjo, fiddle and guitar. Levels for the banjo classes included novice, lower intermediate, upper intermediate and advanced. There was also a guitar track and a fiddle track.
Two classes in each level were offered in the mornings, and two in the afternoons, with awesome faculty concerts on the Friday and Saturday evenings, followed by jams organised by ability level. While some of the instructors had slightly different interpretations of ability levels, it was clear to most students early in each class if they were in the wrong level. Most had a second option chosen, so were able to slip away and race off to their alternative choice. Student ability levels ranged from complete novices to semi-professional players.
Fine musicians who came along teach non-banjo classes and/or support the jams included Chris Luquette, Erynn Marshall, and the Canote brothers on fiddle, guitar, ukulele, and assorted instruments. Also leading jams were Orville Johnson on dobro, and several other accomplished Pacific Northwest acoustic players.
If you are planning a visit to Vancouver, B.C., Portland (Oregon), or Seattle, I would recommend that you try to time it for the second week in September to take advantage of this great opportunity. And for those banjo players out there, relax – I have never heard so much tuning in my life.