"It has continued to grow and evolve each year," said Jeffrey Brown, Valparaiso University's Coordinator of Jazz Studies, of the annual VU Jazz Festival. He founded the fest 32 years ago and continues to produce it on behalf of the university and the community.
Brown is quick to note that it's a team effort to produce this six-day event each year and that his right hand is student union director Steve Janowiak.
The growth this year has resulted in "Swing And Dance: An Evening of Classic Jazz Standards from the '40s and '50s," a new addition co-sponsored by the Valparaiso Concert Association and the VU Music Department on Tuesday, April 4.
"This is the first time we are doing this at the fest and it came about because Joe Bognar, the Chair of the Music Department, came to me with the idea about 10 months ago," said Brown. He noted how the event's continued success and growth is because of the involvement of many across campus and the community.
"It features the VU Jazz Ensemble with guest vocalist Maura Janton Cock of the university faculty, performing great old standards by Ellington, Basie and others. The audience will be hearing songs like 'Satin Doll,' 'Fly Me To The Moon,' 'Don't Get Around Much Anymore,' along with some bossa novas like Burt Bacharach's 'The Look of Love' and 'The Girl from Ipanema' made famous by Stan Getz, plus classic ballads like Erroll Garner's 'Misty' and Victor Young's 'When I Fall In Love'. The night will also feature the VU Ballroom Dancers.
Showcasing the wide spectrum of jazz styles and sounds is what Brown has strived for since the festival’s 1985 inception as a 1 1/2-day event. It was one of the first projects Brown envisioned after becoming Valparaiso University’s Jazz Studies coordinator in 1979.
“It was my goal since the very beginning to make the jazz festival non-categorical," he said. "We have always strived to showcase the many various genres and styles."
To that end, Brown is pleased to be presenting for the first time Afro-Latin Jazz. Brown said VU was fortunate to secure CALJE (The Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble) for a 90-minute performance on Saturday (3/8). "The festival has hosted Latin jazz artists over the years, including Arturo Sandoval, but never one as globally-flavored as this," said Brown. CALJE is an expansive 16-piece group whose repertoire fuses Afro-Latin American music with Jazz into a broad sound steeped in many cultural rhythms.
"When most people think of Latin music, they think of salsa, but there are so very many different kinds of music, many kinds of rhythms and flavors in Latin music," explained Mexican trumpeter/composer Victor Garcia, a native Chicagoan who co-founded CALJE with Nicaraguan pianist Darwin Noguera. "Think of how many countries there are in South America and Central America and each has its own flavor and sound."
CALJE takes those various styles and also those of Africa and blends them into a repertoire that is rhythmically infectious and makes it hard for audiences to stay in their seats. "People are always up and dancing at our shows," said Garcia. "It's hard not to dance when the music is playing." Among the various styles of Latin music encompassed by CALJE are salsa, meringues, tangos bachata, bossa nova, cumbia, rumba, and sambas, among others. More on CALJE: facebook.com/pg/chicagoafrolatinjazzensemble.
Another example of the "wide spectrum" Brown seeks is The Victor Wooten Trio featuring Dennis Chambers and Bob Franceschini, performing at 8 p.m. Friday, April 7. "Victor Wooten is a 'must see' artist, one that will leave people standing with their mouths open," said Brown. "I've been a huge fan of Victor's approach to playing for some time, so it's exciting to have him coming to perform here on campus."
Although jazz music by nature is ever evolving, Wooten is among the most adventurous of today's jazzers. A five-time Grammy Award-winner and an original member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Wooten is perhaps the most imaginative electric bassist since Jaco Pastorious. He is a Performance Scholar in Residence at Berklee College of Music and recently authored "The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music" (Berkley Publishing Group/Penguin USA Inc.).
According to Brown, the four primary objectives in regard to the annual jazz festival have always been to present challenging repertoire and unique guest experiences for VU students; to provide excellent performance opportunities in a non-competitive atmosphere for high school students; to provide interesting and educational workshops, lectures and performances for VU and non-VU students alike and to present eclectic programs for a diverse audience.
Although big name performers create the buzz around this annual event -- past artists include The Count Basie Orchestra, Dee Dee Bridgewater, The Yellowjackets, The Mingus Big Band, Maynard Ferguson and Natalie Cole -- the focus on students and education has remained the driving force behind the festival.
Each year, VU's Jazz Ensemble -- this year featuring 22 students -- has the opportunity to perform a concert for the community while backing up a top name soloist. This year's star soloist is world renowned tenor saxophonist Mark Colby, a second generation jazzer whose father played with Benny Goodman in the 1940s. A child prodigy, Colby performed live in his early teens with stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Ann Margret and Tony Bennett, and began sitting in with Ira Sullivan at age 16, later becoming a "go to" session player and touring musician for many big name artists. Colby's latest album is 2016's "All Or Nothing" on his own RCI label.
The VU Jazz Ensemble perform monthly at Duffy's Place in Valparaiso where they get live stage experience, beyond their class room education. "Jeff and Tina St. Aubin, the owners of Duffy's Place do a great service to our students having them perform," said Brown. "The St. Aubins sponsor this year's Friends of Jazz Reception at 6:30 p.m. Friday evening. We couldn't do this festival without the 'Friends of Jazz,' a collective of local residents and businesses who raise the funds needed to present this event each year." Those interested in Friends of Jazz can get more information at reception in the Brown & Gold Room, or by contacting the university.
Local high schools are always part of each year's fest schedule and those performing this year are bands from Hobart, Portage and Chesterton on April 3; followed on April 5 by bands from Kouts and Valparaiso, as well as LaLumiere College Prep School of LaPorte.
"I really encourage people to come and see the talented young people in the high school groups we have performing,” said Brown. “I know they will be impressed with what they see and hear because I’m always impressed by some of the talent found in these groups. These kids from right here in our area are the musical stars and the musical educators of tomorrow."