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23rd Iowa City Jazz Festival features veterans and young acts

BY BRETT KARLAN | JULY 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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Craig Kessler is not afraid to admit that jazz music might be a bit out of the mainstream, but he thinks this is a good thing. He was describing what makes hosting a jazz festival in Iowa City worthwhile.

“We try to stretch people’s [musical experiences] out,” he said, leaning across the Blue Bird Diner table, his eyes widening with excitement.

Kessler, the producer of “Jazz Corner of the World” on jazz radio KCCK, is also on the music-selection committee for the Iowa City Jazz Festival. The festival, now in its 22nd year, brings a wide variety of jazz and local food to downtown Iowa City. The music will begin at 4:30 p.m. Friday on the Pentacrest and continue through an 8 p.m. performance on July 7.

Don Thompson, an attorney for Bradley and Riley PC, chairs the music-selection committee. He echoed Kessler’s point from the other side of the table, although he framed the idea more modestly.

“We try to stretch people out a little bit without making them too uncomfortable,” he said. “But we also want to bring in music that people want to hear.”

Another aim of the weekend had Thompson and Kessler in complete agreement.

“We really try to bring in up-and-coming artists that no one here has heard about but that people should be excited about,” Thompson said. “That’s the big thing.”

Kessler nodded, telling an anecdote about a colleague at KCCK.

“People will ask him about the festival, ‘Where are all the big names?’ ” Kessler said. “And he’ll tell them, ‘Oh, they were here three years ago.’ ”

Jazz Fest in context

The story of how a Midwestern college town came to host a nationally renowned jazz festival starts outside of MC Ginsberg Objects of Art, 110 E. Washington St., in 1991.

“I was … visiting [owner] Mark Ginsberg when he looked at me and said, ‘Steve, let’s start a jazz festival,’ ” Steve Grismore, a local guitar player and University of Iowa School of Music lecturer, wrote in a statement on the festival’s website. “Not knowing if Mark was serious and unwilling to take the chance that he wasn’t, I immediately said, ‘OK.’ ”

The two men went on to produce a jazz festival on July 4 of that year.

“The first year, it was called the Washington Street Jazz Festival,” said Dennis Green, the general manager of KCCK, who is also a member of the music-selection committee. “And it went on like that as a small festival for years and years.”

The event grew slowly but steadfastly at first. The name was changed to the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 1992. The first festivals lasted a single day, but the event expanded into the evening of July 3 in 1995. And growth has continued since.

“The first two years of the festival, attendance was only between 4,000 to 5,000,” Grismore wrote on the website. “The average attendance the last three years has been about 25,000.”

Part of the increase has been the festival’s assimilation into the Summer of the Arts organization. Lisa Barnes, the current executive director of the Summer of the Arts in Iowa City, was an original board member when the partnership first formed.

“Between the Iowa City Jazz Festival, which was completely volunteer-run, and the Iowa Arts Festival, which had a part-time executive director, there was competition for fundraising dollars and operational means,” she said. “It made sense to bring them together to share resources.”

By the early 2000s, the Jazz Festival was well on its way to becoming one of the most respected events of its kind in the nation. Green noted one particularly good measure of this: the live broadcast of the main stage shows on KCCK every year.

“That’s huge,” he said. “There aren’t too many stations out there that will tackle a 22-hourlong broadcast. That shows you how big this thing is.”

The lineup

The 2013 iteration of the Iowa City Jazz Festival will feature 11 ensembles over the course of three days on the main stage, set up in front of the Old Capitol on the Pentacrest. Ninety-minute main stage shows are broken up by 30-minute sets on three side stages.

The Youth Stage showcases various student musicians from schools around the Corridor, while the College Stage offers university students the opportunity to play before a festival audience. The Local Stage will feature area jazz musicians.

Aside from the music, the Iowa City Jazz Festival’s Culinary Row gives vendors an opportunity to serve local food to festival attendees. Other activities, such as a synthetic ice-skating rink, will also be part of the weekend.

The lineup for the main stage exemplifies the music committee’s desire to book up-and-coming talent. JD Allen, for instance, a 2011 Downbeat Critics Poll Rising Star award winning saxophone player, will play with his trio on the main stage at 4 p.m. July 7.

“He has really begun to make some waves at the more creative and progressive end of jazz,” Green said.

Allen’s playing is fast and linear. It is often hard to tell where the melody ends and his improvisation begins.

“But it’s also really melodic,” Thompson said. Kessler pulled these two ideas together and summarized Allen’s work.

“He doesn’t just do one thing,” he said. “He does everything.”

Another rising star in the jazz world booked to play at the festival is Sachal Vasandani. Vasandani, also a Downbeat Rising Star, is a vocalist of notable warmth. His tone lulls and comforts without being sleep-inducing. He starts every note as if it were slowly revealed to him in a dream.

Vasandani will be accompanied by the Iowa Jazz Orchestra, a collection of professional jazz musicians from across the state. The show will begin at 8 p.m. Friday.

“You look at him, and you might not think much of him,” Green said. “But I was blown away by his phrasing and his singing.”

Kessler, though, found his appeal to be much simpler.

“People love jazz vocalists,” he said.

The old and the young

Along with these young-blood players, the festival will also host its share of “jazz masters.”

“Jazz masters are players who have had long careers and who have deserved great acclaim for a long time,” Thompson said. “And, crucially, they still can play.” The jazz masters this year include Pharoah Sanders, a legendary saxophone player, and Dr. Lonnie Smith, a world-renowned organist.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the only local group that will play on the main stage this year. Laranja comprises students and recent graduates of the UI music school. The ensemble, which plays a very contemporary style of jazz, will take the stage at 6 p.m. Friday.

“There’s been a connection between the University of Iowa and some universities in Brazil,” said Justin LeDuc, the drummer for the band. “And some of us have played in Brazilian jazz combos. So there’s a lot of world music in our sound.”

LeDuc also listed jazz crossover legends such as Pat Metheny as influences.

Laranja is something of a local success story: last year, the ensemble played on the College Stage in between main-stage performances. This year, the band will have to opportunity to play the main stage itself.

Interest in the group around the area also seems to be growing.

“I know I said you should come to all of the shows,” Kessler said. “But if there is a group that everyone needs to see, it’s Laranja.”

While booking rising stars such as Laranja has its benefits, festival organizers note that they have to be wary of alienating potential audience members.

“It’s always been a hallmark of the Jazz Festival that it is, at least partially, a musician’s festival,” Green said. “The artists are for everybody, but musicians take a major role in the organization of the festival. So it’s inevitable that this will be for them, too.”

Green, however, emphasized this as a strength of the festival. He said he hoped the shows would bring everyone, musicians and non-musicians alike, out into the beautiful Iowa City evening for some first-rate jazz.

“It’s all about giving people of all ages the opportunity to listen to and appreciate jazz,” Green said.


What: Iowa City Jazz Festival
When: Friday-July 7; first main-stage show begins at 4:30 Friday
Where: Downtown Iowa City
Admission: Free


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