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Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival brings all that jazz to town

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2012 - The ninth annual Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival returns this week with a lineup of nationally known musical talent.

On Thursday, trumpeter Sean Jones and vibes player Stefon Harris take the stage at Jazz at the Bistro. Friday, famed percussionist Poncho Sanchez and his Latin Jazz Band play with special guest Terence Blanchard at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri St. Louis campus. On Saturday, the festival winds up with acclaimed bassist Christian McBride leading his Grammy-winning Big Band at the Touhill.

Built around those evening performances are four days of clinics for dozens of high school and college jazz combos and big bands. The clinics will be led by the jazz headliners in conjunction with Jim Widner, director of the Jazz Studies program at UMSL.

The star power of musicians such as McBride, Sanchez, Blanchard, Harris and Jones underscores the growth of the event since its comparatively modest debut in 2004 as a campus festival.

The festival’s higher profile is also a direct result of Widner and the UMSL Jazz program partnering with Jazz St. Louis (the nonprofit organization that books Jazz at the Bistro and sponsors educational outreach events throughout the area) and the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Workshops and performances at Jazz at the Bistro became part of festival in 2006, but the Bistro’s schedule of performances – often booked nearly a year in advance – occasionally conflicted with the festival’s dates. Now that issue has been resolved, said Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis.

“In the past, we were happy to host workshops for small groups at Jazz at the Bistro,” said Bradford in a phone interview. “But there were a couple years when we couldn’t do it because of previous commitments with our regular performance schedule. Now that we’re officially a part of the festival team, that’s become a priority for us -– and it also fits into our mission to develop the next generation of jazz musicians in the St. Louis area. And with the continued growth of the festival, we saw opportunities to bring new life to the effort.”

The partnership with Jazz St. Louis has helped the festival, said Widner.

“Working with Jazz St. Louis is just a really natural fit,” said Widner. “In addition to hosting the combo workshops and the Thursday evening concerts featuring Sean and Stefon, they’re now working with myself and UMSL to help secure securing great musicians like Poncho, Terence and Christian for our clinics and Touhill performances.”

The performance space at the Touhill figures prominently in the partnership.

“With our strategic plan initiative in 2009, we had a focus on presenting concerts outside the Bistro,” said Bradford. “And the Touhill has proven to be a great fit for us. We’ve been fortunate enough to host concerts by Sonny Rollins, David Sanborn, George Benson, and most recently, Herbie Hancock there.”

For jazz fans, the focus is clearly on the evening performances with the star headliners, but the heart of the event is really the educational component,  according to both Widner and Bradford.

“It’s really all about the students,” emphasizes Widner. “In the combo division we have a dozen high school groups — plus our own UMSL combos in the mix — so we’ve expanded that workshop to two days. For big bands, we originally planned a maximum of 32 groups but were able to expand to 36. That takes place over two days as well. It’s hard to say no. So, even though we’re overextended, we made it work.”

“Having Sean and Stefon teach the combo workshops at the Bistro is something that really should be great for students,” added Bradford. “In addition to being great musicians, Sean and Stefon are wonderful educators. They have that ability to bring a great learning experience for the students who are participating. Then when the students come back to experience Stefon and Sean in live performance, it’s a deeper experience for them. And for us, there’s nothing that beats the energy of a roomful of young folks responding to great music.”

“The bottom line for us is to make sure every student who attends the festival in a big band experiences playing onstage at the Touhill,” said Widner. “It’s a once in a lifetime thrill for some of these students. Bottom line, it’s the crown jewel of our program. And it essentially elevates not only our program here but also the entire jazz profile of St. Louis.

Spotlight on Sean Jones

Jones, a featured performer Thursday night, has built a reputation as one of the most talented, up-and-coming trumpet players on the international jazz scene.

After five years of holding down the lead trumpet in the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra, Jones stepped out to lead his own quartet. He has also recorded six critically acclaimed recordings since 2004.

Jones, who toured Europe last summer with legendary musicians Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, leads the Cleveland Jazz orchestra and teaches in the Jazz Studies department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

In a recent telephone interview on the way to the Pittsburgh airport, Jones emphasized the value that teaching young students brings to his personal musical approach.

“The great thing for me about working with students is that it keeps things fresh for me,” Jones explains. “Sometimes you can get stuck in your own way of doing things. When you have to explain what you’re doing — especially to a group of young students — you’re forced to examine how you’re approaching your own music. And that’s always a good thing.”

Jones brings that same focus on examining musical assumptions to his recording projects. Many of his recordings, such as his last release, “No Need For Words,” take a thematic approach rather than just assembling a number of recent compositions or unrelated versions of standards and recording them for release.

“For me, it’s not about creating art for art’s sake,” explains Jones. “I like to find a theme that not only expresses my own story but also relates something that resonates with other people. For example, with ‘No Need For Words,’ I wanted to explore the theme of love — but do it in a variety of ways, not just romantic love. So when I find that theme, it’s all about going deep down into myself and the music and pulling it out and making it work musically.”

Jones’ workshops and performance at Jazz at the Bistro mark the first time he has actually performed with Harris.

“This will actually be the first time Stefon and I have been on the same stage,” said Jones. “We’re both really looking forward to it, and I’m a great admirer of his music and his talent. So it should be a great time.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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