Over 130 bands from middle schools, high schools, and colleges came from all over Wisconsin and Minnesota to participate in the workshops and competitions. The headlining acts come to educate and perform with the young Jazz students.
Bob Mintzer became a well-known Jazzman by learning his chops first with Tito Puente and then moving on to the Buddy Rich Big Band. It is famously said that, upon hearing of Mintzer’s decision to move on with Buddy Rich, Tito said, “You think I’m a son of a ____? Wait till you get with that guy!” But playing with “that guy” developed Mintzer into one of Jazz’s great horn players, leading him to form his own band, The Yellowjackets. He teaches at USC and his dedication to education brought him to the Eau Claire Jazz Festival.
And then there is Bobby Sanabria. Please allow me to switch to first-person narrative as I tell you that Bobby has been one of my two favorite drummers of the last 10 years. He and I worked on a campaign called GrammyWatch about six years ago when the Grammys decided to drop 31 categories from Grammy contention including Latin Jazz categories and many Gospel categories. In the end, seven of the 31 categories were restored including one of the Latin Jazz categories. This is part of the reason that Bobby has become such an avid ambassador for and educator of Latin Jazz.
But the guy is just amazing to see. As Nicole and I sat in our seats (front row!) waiting for Bobby to take the stage, I told her, “You’re going to love this.” And she did.
He also set about educating the audience with his talks about how he got into Jazz. Jaybird Koder says that he got into it by listening to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. For Bobby, it was listening to the cartoons of Hanna-Barbera. Hoyt Curtin was an amazing composer who made Jazz arrangements of the cartoon themes to Top Cat, Huckleberry Hound, and The Flintstones.
So, the opening tune for Bobby’s set was The Theme from Jonny Quest. And these kids blew the doors off. It was also announced during the performance that it had just been announced that the DownBeat magazine awards were in. The DownBeat awards are the college equivalent of the Grammys. Not kidding.
The UW-Eau Claire Big Band had just won the DownBeat Award for “Best College Large Ensemble.” You should have seen the faces of those kids. It seemed to give them a surge that showed as they played on Friday night.
They beat out the great schools like North Texas University, University of Miami, all places that are known for their Jazz Studies programs. It is called by the New York Times "one of the most well-regarded jazz studies programs in the country."
Moreover, it was their second award in a row, their sixth overall. Impressive. Director of Jazz Studies Bob Baca was awarded UW-EC’s first “Career Excellence in Teaching Award” in 2013.
But Bobby had these kids on fire that night. And Bobby himself was impressed.
“Incredible night last night,” Bobby said the next day. “We got a 5-minute standing ovation! These young lions are the real deal! No wonder they won the DownBeat Award for the second year in a row!”
During the performance, the young bassist took his solo and Bobby yelled out, “Go to church, young man! Where Jazz is played is a sacred place.”
And you wonder why I’m like a religious zealot about Jazz?
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl