Spring has been about "all that jazz" for more than a quarter century at Valparaiso University. And Jazz Studies coordinator Jeffrey Brown has been involved since the first note was played.

It was Brown's idea to start what is now the Midwest's largest noncompetitive jazz event. The day-and-a-half event has grown to a six-day music gala. The 26th VU Jazz Festival runs from April 11 through April 16.

Back in 1985, Brown, then the Jazz Ensemble director, envisioned a showcase for his students.

"It's grown far beyond being just a campus thing. This festival reaches out and embraces and involves the entire region," he said.

That community support has helped the fest defy economic hardships, as many area businesses owned by jazz enthusiasts comprise the "Friends of Jazz," major supporters of the VU Jazz Fest.

"VU has an extensive music program. Where else can a Bach Institute and a jazz festival share a common audience? It has been my goal since the very beginning to make the jazz festival noncategorical. Over the years we have presented all the different flavors of jazz and that is something we are very proud of," Brown said.

Over the years, top jazz names - Marian McPartland, Charles Mingus Big Band, Patti Austin, Maynard Ferguson, The Yellowjackets, Ernie Watts, Randy Brecker, The Ellington Dynasty, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Red Rodney - have been brought to the region for memorable performances.

Yet in all that time, one of the greatest living jazzers of them all, though a lifelong resident of Chicago, has never made to the festival. Until now.

Three-time Grammy winner Ramsey Lewis will bring his internationally famous trio to close out this year's fest April 16. The Chicago great's set is sure to include "The In Crowd" and other hits spanning his decades-long, gold record-strewn career. Drummer Charles Heath and bassist Joshua Ramos round out his trio.

"Being from Chicago, Ramsey Lewis has made numerous appearances in the region throughout the years, but this is his first appearance at the VU Jazz Festival," Brown said.

Brown's excitement is compounded by Lewis' upcoming special on WTTW-Channel 11. Tune in 9 p.m. April 14 to witness what the jazz legend regards as his masterpiece, "Proclamation of Hope."

The 90-minute symphonic tribute to Abraham Lincoln features Lewis and a 22-piece orchestra. It was recorded last November at the F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Lewis debuted "Hope" at Ravinia Festival in 2009 as part of the venue's celebration of the Lincoln bicentennial. His eight-movement piece draws upon jazz, blues and gospel.

No stranger to PBS, the acclaimed pianist also hosted WTTW's 13-week public television series, "Legends Of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis."

Brown expects media attention for the PBS broadcast to sell even more seats for Lewis' VU concert.

"I don't know if Ramsey will be playing straight through or take an intermission, but there is no opening act, so don't be late," warned Brown.

While the biggest buzz is about Lewis coming, there are plenty of other artists and evenings leading up to his 8 p.m. show.

As has been tradition over the years, the festival will open with two free nights of music April 11 and 12, showcasing the talents of several jazz bands from area schools.

"One of our goals has always been to offer the visiting ensembles the opportunity to perform amongst their peers in a professional setting for the mere joy of sharing the music," Brown said.

"This year we have Hobart Middle School, Hobart High School, Valparaiso High School, Chesterton High School, Indiana University South Bend Ensemble, Gary Emerson High School, Portage High School, Crown Point High School, and of course, the Valparaiso University Jazz Ensemble," Brown said.

"This semester the ensemble has 19 students," said Brown. "Five trumpets, five trombones, five saxophones, two pianists, bass and drums. It is comprised of undergraduate university students representing various majors. There are students in the ensemble that are future engineers, nurses, doctors, teachers, computer analysts and  meteorologists."

The VU Jazz Ensemble will also perform April 14 with special guest, trombonist Vincent Gardner.

"Vincent grew up in South Holland, Ill. He comes from a family of teachers. His father (Burgess Gardner) is a very well respected jazz musician/educator in the Chicagoland area. Vincent is one of the most respected trombonists in New York and is currently working a lot with Wynton Marsalis," said Brown, who, as one third of the VU Jazz Faculty Trio, will have Gardner guest with them for their April 15 performance. Along with Brown on drums, the trio features bassist Bruce Evans and pianist Billy Foster.

"The Faculty Jazz Trio has performed together for more than 30 years and we've performed at every one of the festivals over the years," Brown said. Their first album, "For The Moment," came out last year.

New to the fest line-up this year is the Tia Fuller Quartet on April 13. Saxophonist Fuller hails from Colorado originally, but relocated a decade ago to Jersey City, where she has wailed her way into the hearts of East Coast jazz fans.

While jazz was all the rage on campuses in the 1940s and 1950s, today's typical college student is likely to be more into John Mayer, Dave Matthews or Umphrey's McGee.

Yet, despite this, Brown said many students at VU follow jazz.

"Granted, they like other music as well, but, since the ensemble gets out and performs in both traditional and nontraditional settings, students have an opportunity to be exposed to the various styles associated with jazz," he said.

"I've said for many years, that I think that the jazz festival is one of the only performance vehicles the university has that reaches out and embraces the entire region. Our demographic is very broad based," he said.