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Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival celebrates a strong decade

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Ten years ago, the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival made its debut on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Over the past decade, the festival has grown in length, evening concert performances, and the number of name jazz artists featured in those concerts.

But for Jim Widner, director of jazz studies at UMSL and founder of the festival, the most important aspect of the growth of the event is the increase in students who attend the several days of jazz combo and big band clinics that happen before those evening concerts.

“Without the students and the workshops, you wouldn’t have a festival,” Widner says during a recent phone conversation between last minute prep work for the festival. “Without that component, you would only have headliner concerts. Students are at the heart of our event.”

That focus on education may be the key reason the festival is the longest running jazz fest in St. Louis history – outlasting the St. Louis Jazz & Heritage Festival, which took place from 2001-08 at Shaw Park in Clayton.

Another key element in the festival’s longevity is the quality of professional musicians and educators Widner brings to UMSL every year to work with the jazz combo and big band students. Widner’s network of contacts in the jazz world is vast thanks to musical credentials that include stints with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, the Woody Herman and Glenn Miller bands as well as leading his own Jim Widner Big Band for more than 25 years – and his impressive resume as a music educator at UMSL and as the leader of summer jazz camps for students for many years. And those contacts have resulted in outstanding jazz educators at the annual festivals.

“This year, our list of clinicians includes Denis DiBlasio, the baritone sax player and musical director for Maynard Ferguson’s band,” says Widner. “We also have trumpeter Rick Stitzel, who is renowned as a composer and arranger; David Seiler, who puts on the Clark Terry festival at the University of New Hampshire; Mary Jo Papich, who was the first president of JUN, the Jazz Education Network that had its first convention here at UMSL; Brett Stamps, who was director of jazz studies at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville for several years; and Allen Beeson, from our own UMSL Jazz Department.

“And of course, we have Anat Cohen and Matt Wilson, who are coming in to be our jazz combo clinicians – and who are also playing at Jazz at the Bistro this Thursday.”

Drummer Wilson and clarinetist- sax player Cohen have both played the Bistro separately before, and their appearance together as clinicians Thursday day at the Lee Theater at UMSL’s Touhill Performing Arts Center and later that evening for two sets at the Bistro is another example of the collaboration between UMSL and Jazz St. Louis that helps make the festival a success.

“We started partnering with Jazz St. Louis in doing part of the festival evening concerts at the Bistro in 2006,” says Widner. “That partnership has really grown the past two years. Jazz St. Louis now books our evening concerts at Touhill’s Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, and it has done a great job this year bringing in the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour on Friday night and Doc Severinsen’s Big Band on Saturday.”

Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, the nonprofit group that books Jazz at the Bistro and oversees its own extensive jazz education efforts in the area, sees the partnership with UMSL as a win-win for both organizations - and jazz awareness in the St. Louis area as well.

“It’s a great partnership,” says Bradford during a recent phone interview. “We’re pleased to work with UMSL and bring artists in there that the Bistro just can’t handle as far as audience size – and that can really shine in larger venues like the Touhill. And we’re able to do that not only in conjunction with the festival, but at other times throughout the year as well.”

Bradford is especially pleased with the lineup that has been assembled for the 10th anniversary of the festival, emphasizing the depth and diversity of the lineup in his comments.

“It’s a very strong lineup, and I’m really looking forward to all the concerts,” he says. “We were really fortunate that the Monterey Jazz Festival On Tour band (YouTube at right) had a date that worked with the festival schedule. It’s an amazing, all-star group, starting with Dee Dee Bridgewater on vocals. She’s such a powerful, energetic performer live! Christian McBride has been to the Bistro many times, and his Big Band played the fest last year. Benny Green on piano is a favorite in St. Louis and has been to the Bistro many times. Lewis Nash has appeared there as well and is a great drummer. And Ambrose Akinmusire is definitely an up-and coming trumpeter.

“Doc Severinsen is a legend, and it’s going to be great to see Matt and Anat together at the Bistro. They’re both special artists and bring lots of energy every time they play.”

For Widner, the evening lineup put together through the cooperative effort among UMSL, Jazz St. Louis and the Touhill has been a big plus in the development and growth of the festival. But for him, the bottom line is always the students who come to learn and develop musically through clinics and performances at the Fest.

“I’ve said this before, but I believe it completely,” he says. “From day one, this festival has been the crown jewel of the UMSL jazz program. Not only does it build awareness of our program, it helps put St. Louis and its jazz scene in the spotlight. And most importantly, it gives students in our own program as well as all the other schools that attend the workshops, the opportunity to interact, learn and play with jazz icons.

“This is the tenth year now, and we’re definitely proud of the fact it’s grown in size and stature. But we’re most proud that it’s maintained a high standard of quality – in both instruction and performances.”

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