For jazz violinist Mazz Swift, this weekend’s journey from Banff to Vero Beach may not be as jarring in July as, say, January. But whether it’s in the Canadian Rockies, where she just served on the faculty of a summer music festival, or along the Indian River, where she joins the Mike Block String Camp this week, Swift sends her audiences on a trip that is unpredictably cool, chill or scorching hot.
Known as much for her classical and folk violin as for her own composition and improvisation, Swift comes to Vero to help teach as many as 100 students, children and adults, local and international, in the art of improvisation.
Swift will also take part in two free concerts that Block has grandly dubbed the Vero Beach International Music Festival, featuring more than a dozen highly accomplished musicians. From Celtic music competition champions to Grammy Award-winning recording artists, the camp faculty typically performs in a broad swath of styles from traditional bluegrass to electronica.
The addition of Swift to the roster could add yet another style to the concerts. Mike Block, a Grammy-winning, Juilliard-trained cellist and founder of the Vero camp, has been inviting Swift for the past six years, but she was too busy to make it. Swift once called her sound “deep, dark soul” in an appearance on the “Today” show, adding that it evolved of her parents’ love of jazz and classical music that played in her home growing up in Queens, N.Y.
Everyone in the family was musical, says Swift, and parents and children alike sang and played instruments. At the centerpiece of the home was the piano, first in the Ravenswood housing projects in Long Island City, and later in Hollis, where countless music legends in R&B, jazz and hip-hop got their start, she notes.
When they could, her parents made a point of taking Swift and her three sisters to free concerts in Central Park. At age 4, she determined in her mind that she would play the violin, “just went around telling everyone that I was a violinist,” she says. “I specifically remember my aunt telling me, ‘You need to have a violin to be a violinist!’ And I agreed, and then went right on insisting I was a violinist.”
At 6 she finally got her violin. By adolescence, she was on track for a career in music, accepted into LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts – the school in the movie “Fame.” Her experience there included a performance at Alice Tully Hall, where she was violin soloist with members of the New York Philharmonic. She played under the late Jonathan Strasser, who taught at the celebrated high school and played the conductor in “Fame.”
“It was one of the few memories I have of performing without being excruciatingly nervous. I remember just before going out onstage, (Strasser) said to me, ‘Just have fun!’ And it was a revelation. I decided I was going to go in and have fun, and I did.”
“The school was every bit as exciting as I had expected it to be. My two older sisters had gone there before me, and I really relished being surrounded by other artistic smart alecks.”
But it was Juilliard that was imprinted on her to-do list.
“My parents talked about me going there as far back as I can remember. Long before I knew what it was, I knew I was going there.”
Swift was accepted into the legendary college of music when she was only 16. That played a role in her feeling unprepared for the rigors of Juilliard, along with having to live in the dorms and away from home for the first time – despite her parents’ protests.
“I was very happy about that, coming from a very strict household. But I was extremely awkward and insecure, and then there were things I didn’t realize until much later. Being one of a handful of black students, I think I felt rather isolated, and in hindsight, needed a lot more support than I had.”
In addition, she struggled with ADHD, which only recently was diagnosed, she says. At Juilliard, “practice, study, communication was all exceedingly difficult,” she says.
When a bout of depression set in, topped with anxiety, she decided to leave Juilliard, even though she was maintaining a 3.85 GPA. It was the middle of her third year.
“I wasn’t prepared for the place socially, but I loved the classes and the orchestra. It made my nerd brain very happy, even as I was struggling socially.”
Swift went on to perform with an astonishing roster of music greats, including Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Kanye West, Jay-Z, DJ Logic and D’Angelo.
“Whitney Houston was one of the kindest and most open souls of all the people I worked with of equal fame. She lit up a room,” Swift says.
“D’Angelo was mind-blowing to play with. The talent and creativity that oozed out of him was exciting to interact with – and his band was equally incredible. It was surreal just how good everyone was.”
But it was Springsteen, whom she calls “so gracious,” who provided her with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He shared the stage with Swift and his “killer band,” as she puts it, before a massive audience.
“I played in front of one of the largest crowds I will ever play in front of. It is something to face tens of thousands of people all cheering so loudly, you can feel it in your chest. It was awe-inspiring.”
If past years are any indication, Swift’s Vero audiences may be smaller, a couple of hundred lovers of Americana, Celtic and bluegrass music jammed into a hall at the First Presbyterian Church. But they will be no less enthusiastic.
The Mike Block String Camp International Music Festival faculty concerts are Wednesday and Friday, July 10 and 12, at 7:30 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church. A Saturday concert featuring the camp’s students is at 3 p.m., followed by a barn dance.
For more information, visit mikeblockstringcamp.com.