All that jazz, 23 bars later

BY ISAAC HERMAN | JULY 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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This Independence Day weekend marks the return of Iowa City’s Jazz Festival, kicking this year’s Summer of the Arts up a notch. Now in its 23rd year, Iowa City’s annual free Jazz Festival is expected to be larger than ever before, boasting new stages as well as local food and art stands.

Downtown will house the main stage. More than 20 ensembles are scheduled to perform, an eclectic mix of artists that blends performances by both veteran and youth musicians. Performances will begin at 5 p.m. today and continue through Saturday, culminating with a fireworks show at 9:30 p.m.

“We really wanted to make a cohesive festival,’” said Don Thompson, the head of Jazz Fest’s musical-booking committee, who, when not working on the festival, is an attorney for Bradley and Riley.

“This year, it’s a little different, going with a Thursday through Saturday format for the first time. Thursday is very youth-oriented, while Friday is more of a transitional day to Saturday, which is our busiest day.”

Jazz Fest’s media attention

Jazz Fest has indeed become much busier since its inception in 1991. It has grown from 1,000 people watching a single stage on a single day to a three-day extravaganza with an anticipated attendance of approximately 30,000 people.

After being named one of Downbeat magazine’s “Top 10 Festivals in the Nation,” in 1996, the event received attention from National Public Radio’s program “JazzSet,” which recorded the festival for a national audience in 2000. This kind of promotion attracted jazz lovers from around the country.

“I’ve talked to people who have made the trip from Omaha, and even Dallas, Texas, to go to this festival,” said Dennis Green, the general manager of the jazz station KCCK-FM, as well as the festival’s MC. “They drove up from Dallas, and after the weekend was over, they told me they would never miss Jazz Fest again.”

KCCK will broadcast a live stream of the festival, consisting of performances on both the main and side stages. Live music, artist profiles, interviews, and scheduling updates will be part of the three-day broadcast.

The hope is to expand the music to the listening public, attracting people who have never been interested in jazz to get to know some of the artists and their stories.

“We’re excited about our broadcast, but to really experience the music, you have got see it live,” Green said. “We’re starting a little later in the evening this year, not only to beat the heat but also because we’re hoping to get people on their way back from work to stop and look around.”

For young musicians, Jazz Fest is an opportunity

This year, Jazz Fest will host a number of jazz luminaries in the lineup who are guaranteed to attract fans from across the country. Two of the headliners, saxophonist Joe Lovano and clarinetist Anat Cohen, are past recipients of Downbeat’s Jazz Critics Award, a mark of greatness in the genre.
The presence of veteran players also provides educational experiences for young musicians from all over Iowa, as well as a chance to show the masters what they can do.

“One of the things we tried to do this year is book pretty serious jazz students, to bring them in and allow them to perform,” Thompson said. “Last year, we worked with some jazz students from schools in the former Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis, and they were just phenomenal.”

This year, the first two days’ openers are high-school ensembles. The United Jazz Ensemble, made up of musicians from City and West High, will play today, and Friday boasts the North Corridor All-Star Jazz Ensemble, comprising teenage performers from Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area.

“There’s a jam session every night at the Mill [120 E. Burlington St.], where, in the past, some of the Main Stage guys come out to hang around and tell stories,” said Dan Padley, who will play with the Scott Barnum Trio and the Dan Padley Group on Saturday. “It’s cool to see young guys and girls meet some of their inspirations.”

Economic and cultural impact of Jazz Fest

Summer is usually a pretty laid-back time of year for Iowa City; most of the undergraduate students have gone home for the summer, and the heat tends to make everyone a little slow. However, Jazz Fest has changed all of that in recent years.

Since its beginning in 1991, the festival has brought approximately a quarter of a million jazz fans to Iowa City, as well as an estimated economic boost of $7 million.

Recognizing the economic and cultural impact of the festival,  the University of Iowa and the city of Iowa City have become the major financial backers for Jazz Fest.

“I really have to give a lot of credit to both [the city and the university] for recognizing what Summer of the Arts does for the community,” Thompson said. “After that, you can see a kind of ‘who’s who’ of businesses in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area that contribute as well. So, it’s a really great community effort.”

In the past, before joining Summer of the Arts, Jazz Fest was a 501c(3) nonprofit organization with its own Board of Directors. This meant the organization had to raise all of the money itself.

Now, as a part of the Summer of the Arts organization, the sponsors that provide the budget for this year allocate a certain amount of money and operations to help support the Jazz Fest committee.

The past few years, that amount of money has expanded drastically.

“I remember it used to be just one stage right off Dubuque, next to the Ped Mall,” said Jon Birdsall, a saxophonist who will perform with Dan DiMonte and the Bad Assettes on Saturday. “Now, we have that huge Pentacrest, which spreads way, way out. It’s pretty cool looking out and seeing that sea of people watching you perform.”

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