RHINELANDER, Wis. (WFRV) – Northwoods Jazz Camp student, Gail Irwin, from Oconto Falls, is no stranger to being in front of a crowd.

“I love jazz music,” Irwin said. “I love listening to it…”

But she’s not usually backed by a big band.  In fact, her typical stage is actually an altar… with a mic at the pulpit.

“I’m a United Church of Christ minister,” said Irwin.

However, one week each spring, for the past fourteen years, the transformation of this diminutive preacher to powerhouse jazz singer is nothing short of divine. Irwin, herself, describes the experience as magical.

“It was just this mystical moment that he created by giving us all the freedom to do our thing,” she described, “with each other. all at the same time and you would think it would be chaos, but it was just this mystical, oneness thing that happened.”

Irwin’s referring to the art of improvisation, a hallmark of jazz music and just one of the techniques students learn at the Northwoods Jazz Camp, hosted each year at Holiday Acres resort on Lake Thompson near Rhinelander.

“To improvise and to trust yourself, to trust your ear and stop looking at the page,” she explained.  “Just start having the experience of singing and making music and listening to the way other people make music and learning from them.”

Irwin admits, had she known the high caliber of faculty when she first signed up for camp, she likely would have been too intimidated to join them.

“I didn’t even ask and when I read their bios I was like ‘wow,’ she recalled.  “It’s just amazing, the talent and when they get up and play and you can just listen to them it’s just awe inspiring, but the thing about the instructors is it’s not what they play, It’s what they say” Irwin continued, “What they say in Master Class and how they describe the experience of what you’re trying to do when performing with a group makes sense.  It’s something I can relate to.”

Jazz artists who teach at the camp are world-class, professional performers; hailing from the UK to New York, Los Angeles and everywhere in between.

What draws such big-name talent to a tiny town in our own Northwoods?

“Kim Richmond,” answered Santa Barbara’s Kimberly Ford, co-director of the Northwoods Jazz Camp and vocal instructor.  “He’s world class and he draws fabulous people. People want to work with Kim and so we come from all directions when Kim makes the call.”

Kim Richmond is a grammy nominated performer, composer, recording artist and more.  He lives in Hollywood, California but has his own little Northwoods hideaway.

“I have a cabin 35 miles north of Holiday Acres in the town of Three Lakes” Richmond shared.

Richmond also happens to be married to Chris Zambon, a talented artist in her own right, who’s work adorns the walls all around Holiday Acres.  The Zambon family has owned the resort for generations.

“There’s also this history here at Holiday Acres.,” explained Ford.  “This goes back to his wife’s family’s grandparents.  So, the jazz tradition here, which is in a very rural part of the world, is deep.  It goes very deep.”

Richmond says it’s not just instructors who come from far and wide.  Students travel from across the nation to experience the magic of the Northwoods Jazz Camp.

“We’ve had students from Dallas, Seattle, the Twin Cities, even Los Angeles” Richmond said.

For Irwin, it’s just a few hours up the road, but an experience she says is unlike anything else.

“You’re feeding off the energy of the other people around you, so it’s so different from rehearsing on your own or with tracks at home,” she explained.

One of the big perks of the Northwoods Jazz Camp is the chance to actually get up on stage and jam with some of the best players on the scene today.  If you’re an aspiring jazz student, like this Local 5 reporter, that opportunity is just too good to pass up.  So, there I was, on stage between Kim Richmond on the piano and renowned trumpet instructor David Scott from New York.  With these two pros graciously leading the way, I managed to improvise my way through a sultry rendition of “Summertime” that even drew a round of applause from a very supportive audience.  For that one moment in time, I was a jazz cat.

“The music is great. Every year I understand a bit more music theory, but the big learning is about myself,” Irwin said. “My level of confidence and my ability work with a team, to improvise and to trust yourself, to stop looking at the page.  It’s a lot of life lessons and leadership lessons that I learn here.  That’s really the big take away for me.”

This year’s Northwoods Jazz Camp is already full, but you can catch the Big Band performance open to the public the last night of camp.  That’s Saturday, May 6, 2023.  Click here for more information.