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Elmhurst College Jazz Festival’s 50th Anniversary

Elmhurst College Jazz Festival’s 50th Anniversary

The Elmhurst Jazz Festival featured performances by several top professional bands, including the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Any time that Elmhurst College holds its nationally-recognized Jazz Festival, it’s a major event on the musical scene. But the 2017 Festival—held this past February 23 through 26—was especially noteworthy (pun entirely intended). It was the Festival’s 50th anniversary, marking a half-century of presenting stellar jazz artists appearing in combination with the finest high school and college bands from across the country.

Although the roster of “name” artists appearing at the Festival was impressive, the focus was—as it has been from the beginning—on the young musicians who took part. The opening day was dedicated to high school jazz ensembles, while the remaining days saw performances by college bands. Elmhurst College director of jazz studies (and Festival coordinator) Doug Beach commented, “I’m so impressed with the dedication of [these young] musicians, and the seriousness with which they take the music. They’re not fooling around; they really care about it.”

February 23rd was marked by the Festival’s first-ever opening night concert. The evening’s headline artist was legendary jazz vocalist and Grammy winner Dee Dee Bridgewater. And in another nod to the 50th anniversary, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters honoree Bill Holman closed the Festival on the 26th with his big band, performing a piece commissioned by the college to commemorate the occasion. Performances in between included the Grammy-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (which evolved from the former Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra) on the 24th, and the Patrick Williams Big Band on the 25th.

Drummer/composer Dennis Mackrel served as a judge for the band competition, and was a guest performer with the Elmhurst College big band.

Additional jazz luminaries who presented master classes and/or served as judges in the band competitions included pianist and composer Michael Abene, baritone saxophonist and flautist Denis DiBlasio, saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, drummer and composer Dennis Mackrel, bass legend Rufus Reid, and trumpet icon Bobby Shew.

The Elmhurst Jazz Festival actually came out of the ashes of the former American College Jazz Festival. That was a nationwide competition for which Elmhurst served as a regional site. Regional winners received all-expense-paid trips to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., where they would compete in the finals. In those days there was substantial financial support, primarily from large corporations. But in the early 1970s the economy took a downturn, and—as often happens—arts financing was one of the first things to go. But when the ACJF organization saw its demise in 1973, the administration of Elmhurst College, led by former dean of students Jim Cunningham, stepped in to keep the concept alive. The result was the institution of the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival, and the rest is musical history.

That history has been paralleled by the growth of the jazz program at the College itself, which now offers a major in jazz studies, as well as courses in music business. The college’s own jazz band is internationally regarded following several major tours. In 2014, no less an authority than Downbeat magazine named the band a winner in the large jazz ensemble category of their Student Music Awards.

Of course, neither the Festival nor the jazz program at the college could survive without financial support. And while that support comes from dozens of organizations, corporations, and individuals, one major contributor has consistently been the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation, which was established by Fred W. Gretsch in honor of his parents. In addition to being the president and fourth-generation leader of the Gretsch Company (manufacturers of top-quality drums and guitars), Fred is himself a proud alumnus of the Elmhurst College business program, and he and his wife Dinah have been major supporters of musical activities of all kinds at the college for many years. Along with the financial contributions received by the Festival from the Foundation, Gretsch drumsets were provided for use by all of the professional and student drummers. And beyond the Festival, the college also boasts the Gretsch Electric Guitar Ensemble and the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch recording studio.

Jazz great Peter Erskine anchored the Patrick Williams Big Band, on a drumkit provided for the Festival by the Sylvia and William W. Gretsch Memorial Foundation.

While “popular” music seems to morph from style to style on a constant and unpredictable basis, jazz—referred to by many as the only legitimately original American music—has been around since its inception in the 1920s. But that doesn’t mean it has remained stagnant all that time. As Doug Beach put it, “[Jazz] is very aware of its history, but it’s also looking to see what can develop from what hasn’t been done yet.”

That development is what the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival is really all about. Said Beach, “The Festival provides a place for young students to perform, to be heard, and to develop their craft. It also gives them the chance to hear other musicians. You always learn from listening to someone else. A lot of the pros who have performed here over the years played [at the Festival] when they were in college.”

And it’s entirely likely that some of the students playing at this year’s Festival will return as the pros of the future. In jazz, as in most everything else, what goes around comes around. We can only wait, see, and enjoy.