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UMSL jazz fest mixes education, music

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2009 - The sixth annual Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, which takes place April 16-18 on the campus of the University of Missouri St. Louis, features its most impressive lineup of jazz talent to date.

Guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli and his Quartet open Saturday's concert at the Touhill Performing Arts Center - followed by renowned trumpeter Jon Faddis. Drummer Peter Erskine and saxophonist Lou Marini will headline Friday's Touhill concert.

In addition, 15 jazz combos and 32 big bands from 33 college, high school and middle school programs will participate in clinics and master classes presented by Erskine, Faddis, Marini and other professional musicians.

At a time when the Saint Louis Jazz & Heritage Festival, held every year from 2001 to 2008, is taking an official hiatus because of economic difficulties, area jazz fans might be encouraged to see that the UMSL-based fest continues to grow and expand.

Much of the credit goes to Jim Widner, director of the UMSL jazz studies program. Widner played bass professionally for the big bands of Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Glenn Miller, has recorded five CDs leading his own big band, and has been a force in jazz education for decades.

Widner was hired to build up UMSL's jazz studies program to a level comparable to the excellent programs at Webster University and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and the jazz program at Washington University. Judging by the growth of UMSL's jazz student enrollment - and the success of the greater St. Louis Jazz Fest -- Widner has succeeded.

"The growth of the festival has gone hand-in-hand with the growth of the program here at UMSL," explains Widner during a recent phone interview. "When I first started teaching here six years ago, we only had one student jazz combo. Now we have four jazz combos and two big bands. I attribute a good deal of that growth to the growth of the festival as well as the success of our annual summer jazz camps. These events feed talented music students to our program."

Previous Fests have featured jazz legends such as Clark Terry, but this year's lineup of guest artists is especially impressive.

  • John Pizzarelli is a favorite here thanks to many performances at Jazz at the Bistro and the Sheldon Concert Hall over the years.
  • Jon Faddis is a Dizzy Gillespie protege who now serves as the artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble.
  • Peter Erskine has drummed for everyone from Stan Kenton and Steely Dan to Weather Report and Joni Mitchell. For an interview with Erskine, click here .
  • Lou Marini, probably best known for his sax playing in "The Blues Brothers" movie, has worked with Woody Herman, Tony Bennett, Stevie Wonder and Eric Clapton among many others.

"The festival has always been good in terms of the educational aspects and the quality of the professional musicians we've brought in for clinics and to headline the concerts," says Widner. "But now we're getting such musicians as John Pizzarelli and Jon Faddis, who have a higher profile among the general public and jazz fans in general - not just jazz educators."
According to Widner, paying for such an impressive lineup of artists would not have been possible without outside funding beyond the regular jazz studies department budget. Thanks to a $50,000 donation by UMSL alum Steve Schankman, co-founder of Contemporary Productions, bringing in that lineup of name talent became a reality.

"I have to mention the generous contribution that Steve has given to support and build our program, added Widner. "We certainly would not be able to have all four of these outstanding artists for our festival without that assistance."

The growth of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival certainly seems to be filling the musical void left when the Saint Louis Jazz & Heritage Festival decided to pass on producing its June event at Shaw Park in Clayton this year. But Widner insists that the St. Louis area needs both events to succeed.

"I sincerely hope the Jazz & Heritage Festival only has a one year hiatus, he states. "The two events can really complement each other since we're actually coming from a jazz education approach.

"I also think many major cities have realized that a major jazz festival is a great way to bring people to a metro area - and expose them to other attractions as well. And I think this is especially vital for a city like St. Louis, which has a jazz history and a musical heritage that is so tremendously impressive. In fact, I'd like to see other festivals added to the mix, too."

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer known for his music coverage.

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