Blues U Camp Helps Kids Turn It Up To Eleven While Keeping The Gift Of Music Alive


While many parents may discourage the idea of a bunch of kids coming over to their house, clamoring around with drums, electric guitars, and other loud instruments in the basement, one parent embraces it and tells the kids to turn it up louder. In fact, the louder the better; and the more the merrier. 

Jack Campbell is the proud parent of 4 young, aspiring musicians. He is also the head organizer and founder of Minnesota based organization Blues U. The love for getting instruments in the hands of kids and giving them a space to let loose isn’t anything new for Jack. In fact, it’s always been the status quo. Implementing an “open door policy”, Jack and the Campbell family have always embraced the steady flow of young musicians, friends, and neighbors coming in and out of the house to play music and share new songs. Warmly welcoming any and all who may find themselves underneath the Campbell roof.

Channelling his love for sharing music, Jack created a way for the young musicians filling up his house to take part in a proactive, first class experience learning how to hone their craft not on their own, but from highly esteemed mentors and colleagues. This experience is the Blues U Camp.

The camp itself began as an offshoot of a similar camp held each year in Chicago called Blues Kids. Blues Kids provides a space where like minded musicians from all over the U.S can connect, learn together, and stay in touch long after the camp is over. After witnessing the success of the Blues Kids camp some years ago, Jack approached the organizers and convincingly said they should run a satellite camp here in the Twin Cities. 

Seeing the potential of a blues camp was just the seed. The real spark for creating the Blues U project flowered when Jack’s sons began playing music as a full time hobby. Providing a place where they, along with their friends, could play in a band configuration under the tutelage of a professional touring musician seemed like a tremendous way to move them forward in their craft quickly. But furthering his sons’ music abilities was just goal number one. The second aspiration was being able to keep the spirit of the blues alive in younger generations.

Resistant to the idea of the blues becoming a lost art, only prized by the old timers, Jack was determined not to let the music he loved so dearly as a child fall through the cracks. “I worried about the genre getting older and less appreciated. This was a music that defined who I was as a young man. Growing up, it was a live music primarily supported by young people. Now most blues shows are populated by people with as much grey hair as I have.” Jack mentions. 

It’s quite possible that blues legend Buddy Guy explained it best. “The blues are just a hand me down thing.” It’s not taught formally in schools, you don’t learn it in band class. It’s something you just kind of have to know outside of those settings. Most of the social constructs which traditionally supported roots art forms have disappeared. The way people learn and appreciate the blues has changed over the years.

“I think we’re at risk of losing so many of these cultural linchpins because we no longer gather the way we used to. I wanted to create that again. To connect young players with each other as well as with experienced mentors. I wanted to hand it down and replicate that family environment where young people could learn while having fun and not worry about judgment or expectation.” Jack says.

Through Blues U, the dream of handing down the blues and connecting young musicians together has become a reality. The camp creates the perfect medium of passing the torch and getting young musicians excited about the genre. Hosting an average of 30-35 players each year from all across the country, the Blues U Camp fosters a harmonious balance between not only teaching participants how to be better musicians, but establishing friendships along the way.

Kennedy Stromberg is a repeat Blues U attendee from Buffalo, MN. Throughout her multiple visits to the camp, she has learned, and grown a lot from being immersed in the camp experience. Kennedy comes back nearly every year, full of smiles ready to be challenged in new ways. 

“Blues U pushed me into a world I never even knew existed.” Kennedy says. “I had no clue that there was this thriving community of young musicians putting together rag tag bands in Minneapolis. I couldn’t be more grateful that I got the opportunity. Blues camp gave me the unique experience of putting together music in a way I never had before.”

Fostering a space for young musicians to step out of their comfort zones and learn something new, Blues U helps realize young musicians love for the art in a way they may not have discovered on their own.

“While I loved playing bass, it wasn’t until Blues U that I really learned what it meant to play the instrument as a part of a band.” Kennedy says. “Camp has had such a positive impact on my life because of the direction it pointed me in my journey through learning what music means to me.”

This past week, Blues U gathered for their 8th consecutive Blues Camp, welcoming both fresh and familiar faces. The range of experience and skill at this year’s camp was vast, as players were as young as 8 years old, and as old as 20 years old. The abundant diversity among participants is arguably what makes Blues Camp such a rich environment, as some come into the camp as friends, others as complete strangers. Wherever the players may fall, it doesn’t take long for everyone to come together and find their groove. With such a broad talent pool, players are able to share their differing range of knowledge while also being encouraged to ask questions, discover new techniques, and lean on their peers as well as their mentors.

“My favorite part of the camp is that I get to come here and play music with my friends. The camp has helped me get better at singing and my favorite part is when we get to go up on stage at the end of the week and I get to perform.” — Rowan Campbell.

“I like being able to come and play with people rather than just by myself. There’s a lot of music happening during camp week and it’s fun. My best memory was last year when we got to play “Brand New Cadillac” by The Clash.” — Dave Flint. 

“My favorite part of Blues Camp is practicing with others because we not only get to practice with people we don’t know, but people from other states. It’s a good feeling, because I never got to do that before. Last year, I was a little nervous on the stage but I felt really comfortable this year. I had all these people that were so confident in me. I never had that type of love and energy before. That’s important to me and helped me.” — Majesty Barrett.

When the kids arrive at the camp, they are broken down into four ensembles of varying ages and ability. Both attendees and mentors get together at the MacPhail School of Music, located on a beautiful campus in downtown Minneapolis. The rehearsal spaces and facilities are second to none. Offering spacious practice rooms and plenty of instruments, the kids have plenty of space to get loud and move around. While MacPhail facilitates the professional atmosphere for the Blues Camp, without a doubt the biggest strength of what Blues U delivers are the highly accredited mentors who show up to teach and guide the bands. 

“There’s certainly a different kind of credibility and inspiration that comes from a young person working closely with someone who’s good enough that they made their livelihood by performing. Our mentors have Grammy Awards, stints with Prince, Clapton, Buddy Guy, you name it on their resumes.” says Jack.

The distinguished mentors of the Blues U Camp include Jimi Primetime Smith, Charles Fletcher, Scott Holt, and Fred Steele. Smith is blues Hall of Famer. Fletcher played on the road with the likes of Eric Gales while working as a professor at McNally Smith. Holt is a Nashville blues icon who served as Buddy Guy’s right hand man for many years. Steele works with the vocalists in all of the bands, floating from room to room, changing keys to accommodate singers, teaching harmony parts. Each year, the mentors come back ready to instruct their band. There’s certainly something special about the camp that keeps them coming back time and time again.

“It is an incredibly rewarding experience being a mentor for these kids. They’re all so talented. Overall, it’s just a joy to be able to share music with them. It’s almost bittersweet because you get into a groove working with them, and after the show it’s over until next year. But I’m real proud of them, and they do a good job.” — Scott Holt.

Last but certainly not least on the mentor list, is Jack’s son Colin Campbell, who mentors the young kids coming into the camp. Colin first attended the Blues Camp as a kid and is now their first legitimate alumni teaching the youngest players at the camp. As a working, professional musician with his own band, The Shackletons, he is no stranger to how the process works. Last year, Campbell was handed the youngest, rawest bunch that has ever into Blues U. He was able to instruct them again this year.

“It’s really cool to see their progress from day one to day four. Day one, it seems kind of impossible but everyday it gets a little bit better. I like working with the little kids. It makes me proud to see them on the stage at the end of the week. It’s also cool to give them a chance to see if playing music is something they want to carry on doing. I hope the camp sparks the drive to continue playing music in at least some of them.” — Colin Campbell. 

During the four days of rehearsal, each band was working hard, showcasing their talents, and honing in on their craft. As I floated around the rooms listening to each band’s songs, it became clear just how eager and enthusiastic everyone felt about what they were putting together. Practice makes perfect, and each player was locked in. It addition to the focus of the players, every instructor demonstrated and incredible amount of direction and patience with the players. They encouraged kids to branch out, and try new instruments and playing techniques, to which most of the kids were eager to do.

Between the top notch rehearsal space and sophisticated mentors, it’s no secret why Blues U has continued to attract players from all over North America. Recognized by the national Blues Foundation, Blues U has hosted players from British Columbia, Washington, California, Alaska, Chicago, Iowa as well as Minnesota. In fact, this year Blues U hosted a player all the way from Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Bonno Geerse is a Dutch musician who learned about the Blues Camp through his friend Sarah Papenheim, a regular, bright and shining face at the Blues Camp who devastatingly passed away last year while studying abroad in Rotterdam. Through scholarships, Bonno was able to attend the Blues Camp this year and meet so many of the musicians Sarah got to play with. It was also his first ever visit to the United States.

“My experience at the Blues Camp was very good. It was amazing to meet so many people that are engaged with music like I am. I’m basically here because of Sarah. To meet her friends from over here has been so special. Musically, I’ve learned a lot. Especially that it’s fun to play with people you haven’t met before. You really learn to listen to each other’s playing and you trust on the blues laws. My favorite part of the week was all the car rides I made. In the Netherlands we don’t drive that much, but over here they do. Been listening to some great music with some great people in the car during the week.” — Bonno Geerse.

While Bonno’s story may be one of the most exceptional in recent years, Blues U has always prided itself on making sure those who want to play get the chance. When Blues U first started running the camp, Jack was adamant that it be free to anyone who wanted to play. “We would do whatever we had to do to beg, borrow, steal and raise the funds necessary to run the camp through year long fundraising efforts.” Jack says. However, with the growing interest and expenses required to run the camp, there is now a small tuition for participants. “Even with the tuition, I’m still adamant that any kid who wants to play, gets to play. Regardless of financial means. Most important to me remains the ability to tell any family, don’t fret the cash, we’ll take care of your kid.’”

Blues U also relies very heavily on the generosity of local organizations, scholarships, and sponsors to keep running strong. This generosity frequently comes in a stream of quality instrument donations, which are typically raffled off during the camp or at blues festivals. Money given to the raffle goes a long way. By the time all is said and done, it is estimated that around a dozen kids will attend Blues U as a direct result of one donated guitar. “Without the generosity of these kind of people, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do.” says Jack. 

This year, the camp ended with a performance at the Hook and Ladder Theater in Minneapolis, where each band performed a series of practiced songs in front of a live audience. The rainy weather did not deter anyone from showing up and supporting the kids, as every seat in the Hook was filled long before the first band took the stage.

Playing to a packed house, each group took the stage with confidence, energy, and charisma. Eager to share the hard work and practice they had put into the songs, every player and singer was at their best. One of the most memorable moments of the night came from sixteen-year-old Majesty Barrett, whose confidence and charm was infectious. She lead the crowd through a sing-a-long of Fernando Jones’ “Oil and Water” and her band received a warm, bustling applause at the end.

The C-Notes also quickly won over the crowd with their tight precision and rotating players on different instruments. Evan Campbell, who is usually a drummer, branched out and played the harmonica for a song while lead singer Izzy Cruz played the drums.

The last band of the night was the youngest band of kids, who dubbed themselves as “The Ankle Biters”. Every player in the band was locked in and focused, having fun. Seeing how far these kids came from the first day of practice to the performance was a true treat, and lead singer Rowan Campbell did a great job of pumping the audience up and keeping the band on their toes. Between the many guitars, piano, drums, and harmonicas and electric stage presence, The Ankle Biters stole the show.

As their eighth consecutive year came to a close, it’s no doubt that the future of Blues U is brighter than ever. “We’re bigger, better and stronger than we’ve ever been.” Jack says. “My expectations for this year’s camp were no different than in previous years. I wanted to see better musicians walking out at the end of the week. I wanted our incredible professional band leaders to be so inspired that they immediately ask if they can come back and help again next year. Most of all, I wanted those young people to learn to love the Blues. To go off on their own to search for the roots of the music they love.”

And after witnessing the diverse group of players coming together to celebrate, learn, and perform the art of the blues, the future of Blues U is bright indeed. The growth of the players from start to finish and the smile on their faces proves that the blues are not only alive, but here to stay.