It was the biggest year yet in terms of band participation.
“Last year,” said Artistic Director Robert Baca, “we set the record at 117 bands. This year, we have over 130 bands.”
While the concerts draw the crowds, it is the workshops and competitions that draw the middle school, high school and college ensembles. The workshops were held in six different locations from 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. and covered many topics of Jazz interest from arranging, practicing, careers in Jazz, improvisation, specific instruments and much more. The highlights were the Master Class sessions with Jazz stars Connie Evingson, the brilliant Stefon Harris and the great Jimmy Heath.
The astonishing thing about the Eau Claire Jazz Festival is that it is a festival run by students for students. It is one of the top three student-led Jazz festivals in the country. Already, they have begun working on next year’s festival.
On Friday night, the clubs and theatres on Barstow Street recreated the atmosphere of New York City’s 52 Street from back in the day where the various clubs and restaurants participated in hosting live Jazz.
But it was Friday and Saturday nights’ Headliner Concerts that impressed and thrilled the most. Friday night saw Connie Evingson of the Twin Cities perform with the UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble I and, later, Jimmy Heath performed with the same ensemble to close the night.
On Saturday night, the Headliner Concert was opened by the Minnesota Youth Jazz Ensemble, an amazing big band sound with young musicians from middle school on up. Throughout the evening, the winners of the four classes of Honor Big Bands performed and showed why they were indeed the best in their class.
It was watching Stefon Harris and, later, Jimmy Heath perform with the UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble I that was so amazing. Certainly, the performances were wonderful. Even the young musicians gathered cheers and applause. The tall, impeccably dressed bass player Sam Olson turned in fine solos and, with drummer Cami Mennitte Pereyra, created a formidable rhythm section. Pereyra was solid and understated and showed a quick vision of her proficiency in Afro-Cuban rhythms. Pianist Andy Colburn played with strength and precision and won well-deserved praise for his talents.
Stefon Harris had originally planned to be a classical musician but hearing the music of Charlie Parker changed everything. He is an incredible vibraphonist who began his Jazz career in 1996. He began racking up awards in 1999 for his recordings and has been named “Mallets Player of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association and by Jazz Times magazine. He was infectious in his enthusiasm for Jazz and the young performers responded with equal enthusiasm.
Then came Jimmy Heath. From soprano to tenor saxophone to composing, arranging and teaching, Jimmy Heath has influenced generations of Jazz artists and listeners. He is a treasure trove of stories about Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lester Young and so many more. He replaced John Coltrane in Miles Davis’ band in 1959.
“Trane was always high on Jimmy’s playing and so was I. Plus, he was a very hip dude to be with, funny and clean and very intelligent. Jimmy is one of the thoroughbreds,” said Miles Davis.
John Coltrane told Downbeat in 1960, “I had met Jimmy Heath, who - besides being a wonderful saxophonist - understood a lot about musical construction. I joined his group in Philadelphia in 1948. We were very much alike in our feeling, phrasing and a whole lot of other ways. Our musical appetites were the same. We used to practice together, and he would write out some of the things we were interested in. We would take things from records and digest them. In this way, we learned about the techniques being used by writers and arrangers.”
His compositions have gained near-standard status, including Gingerbread Man which was covered by Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and more. Gingerbread Man was one of the set-pieces for Saturday night.
His performance was sheer artistry, of course. But he revealed his nature as educator, as well. He served as band leader to the young ensemble and pushed them and taught them and brought out the very best in them. He gave hand signals for two trumpets to mirror the alto saxophone. Drummer Cami Mennitte Pereyra seemed to please the Maestro and pianist Andy Colburn got several grins from him.
Jimmy Heath brought out their best and gave them his best.
Wisconsin Public Television was there to record the clinics and live performances. They have planned a fall WPT broadcast of the weekend’s events. I want to relive it all over again.
Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl