Iowa City Jazz Festival creates opportunity for youth


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Emiliano Lasansky picked up his first instrument when he was 7. Starting with the violin, the now 18-year-old Lasansky’s love for music grew quickly as he moved on to electric bass when he was 10 and upright bass at 14.

But he always had a passion for jazz.

“I really like how jazz allows you to create art right on the spot,” he said. “Jazz is all about performing in the moment and lets you speak your mind in a musical sense.”

The recent high-school graduate and member of the United Jazz Ensemble — a group featuring musicians from City and West High — is one of several young people who will perform at the Iowa City Jazz Festival this weekend along with a crop of acclaimed and established artists.

Young performers, festival talent buyer Lee Burress said, are the future of jazz.

The festival’s music will begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday and 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and July 3. It will feature 26 bands. Four stages will highlight musical ensembles, including a Youth Stage on Iowa Avenue, a College and Local stage on Clinton Street, and the Main Stage located in front of the Old Capitol.

Burress said the annual audience of more than 50,000 can expect an educational feel to the lineup.

“This year we have a couple of different themes, but one of them is education,” Burress said. “We put a lot of effort into highlighting our young performers throughout the state.”

Each year, young musicians from schools around the Iowa City area, such as Lasansky, are invited to perform and showcase their talents. For years, the festival has created educational opportunities for students to gain performance experience and learn from past generations.

Three local ensembles highlight high-school student musicians, Burress said.

First on the agenda is the University of Iowa Summer Music Camps, a camp for high-school jazz musicians who experience musical training and classroom instruction in most phases of instrumental music.

The North Corridor All-Star Big Band is a new ensemble under the direction of Steve Shanley and Brett Messenger. The ensemble comprises elite high-school musicians from Cedar Rapids to Cedar Falls.

“These musicians play such a big role in the education aspect of the festival,” Messenger said. “It’s a great experience for them to develop a growth in jazz that adds to the future of their musical careers.”

Messenger said the 22 students of the North Corridor All-Stars are the “elite of the elite” high-school musicians, and they create a unique approach to jazz.

“You can never guess where jazz will be in five years from now, but these young musicians will add their own ingredients to the pie,” he said.

Created specifically for the Iowa City Jazz Festival, Messenger said he has high hopes for his performers and hopes to return for years to come.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to showcase their music where a lot of people will see their talents and inspire them to keep playing,” he said.

The third group is the United Jazz Ensemble, of which Lasansky is a member.

The recent West High graduate enjoys playing with the other musicians from City High. They met at state jazz competitions, and now they get to perform together.

“I enjoy having conversations about jazz with the other musicians because we all know the vocabulary of jazz, and that allows us to connect on a musical level,” he said.

The United Jazz Ensemble has kicked off the festival for the last 18 years and has distinguished itself as an example of the festival’s commitment to education outreach.

Ensemble director Rich Medd said being recognized by the Iowa City Jazz Festival is an honor and the students are looking forward to performing on the Main Stage.

“The crowd is four times larger than what they usually play for, so they get a taste of what it means to be a professional musician and see what professional sound systems are like,” he said. “I think listeners who are here to experience good music will enjoy this.”

Practicing only five times this summer, the students have picked out challenging but playable music — such as “Haitian Fight Song,” by Charles Mingus — and they will showcase a number of solo pieces during the course of the performance, Medd said.

“This group has a number of older band students, so they seem to be pretty excited about it,” he said. “They are very well-prepared and very anxious, because this is always a great weekend for music.”

The students have bonded over common musical interests, he said, and they are excited to be listeners as well. They are also looking forward to meeting other musicians, attending numerous performances, and visiting the food vendors.

Lasanksy said Jazz Fest has given him the chance to not only use his skills and perform for the community but enjoy the music as well.

“It has always been a great opportunity to meet up with friends from around the Midwest and talk about jazz and other great musicians,” he said.

The young people will be featured among more well-known headlining acts: Grammy-winner Carmen Bradford, Randy Weston, the Josh Roseman Unit, and Grammy-nominated Kneebody.

Kneebody bass player Kaveh Rastegar said this is the band’s first time at the Iowa City Jazz Festival. Each member of Kneebody writes music, making Kneebody’s sound completely original.

The band members are excited about returning to the Midwest, where they don’t often tour.

“We enjoy learning how to play in different venues whether it’s an outdoor stage or a small club or concert hall,” Rastegar said. “It’s kind of interesting how we learn to change our sound based on the settings we’re in.”

Lasansky said the varied setting is ideal for the young performers as well.

“It’s really fun and different to play outside opposed to inside at a competition,” he said. “The audience is really laid-back, and the people are just there to enjoy the music.”

Jazz fans can expect different aspects of the genre on each night— Friday features big bands incorporating swing and dance numbers, Saturday will capture a groove-oriented feel adding other elements to jazz such as hip-hop, and July 3 will highlight jazz masters, which focuses on a traditional style.

“I and the music festival committee have worked together to bring out the public appeal for jazz,” Burress said. “It’s great to see how this year’s festival has come together along the way.”

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