Opening Letters

Festival Fusion

personal invitations go a long way in discovering jazz

Ken Szymanski |

Even though I’ve lived in Eau Claire nearly all my life, I’ve never once considered attending UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz Festival. Part of it is probably for the same reason that a lot of people who live in Seattle never go up the Space Needle. In addition to that, though, I always had the impression that I didn’t belong there. I knew the festival was nationally recognized. I knew it was big. But ... it was almost as if there was a sign posted outside: Serious Players & Serious Fans Only. All Others Are Strictly Prohibited.

If my relationship with jazz is “casually dating,” the Jazz Festival seemed like it was meant for people who are married to it.

Jazz and I met about 10 years ago at Borders. With a vague appreciation, I felt like expanding my jazz collection from zero CDs to one. I considered Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue because, 1) the marquee name seemed like a safe choice, 2) the cover looked like what I wanted the music to sound like, and 3) the sticker on the cover said it was one of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. I took a chance on it, and I loved it. More than any other music, Kind of Blue took me to a state of concentration in which I completely lost myself in my work.

I played it endlessly, and I went out and picked up John Coltrane’s Blue Train hoping for similar results. After all, it had a similar title, similar cover, and similar claims on the sticker. Again, I hit the jackpot. I still use both CDs during study time with my middle school students, and I’ve never heard a complaint. In fact, several students have asked about the artist and title with the intent to buy.

When jazz night started at the Stones Throw (back when Volume One still had a black and white cover), a friend of mine told me I had to go. It didn’t take much to talk me into it, as I had nothing better to do. Still, it surpassed my expectations. I loved the atmosphere that the music created. I didn’t study the players and shake my head in admiration like the music majors who sat up front, but I liked the horns, the bass, the piano, and the funny banter of then-frontman Andrew Neesley. I knew nothing about the technical aspects – I still don’t “get” chords, keys, flats, sharps, etc. I just know what I like. 



Going to a local bar to hear jazz is one thing. Attending the Jazz Festival seems like a whole different level. UWEC’s Bob Baca, however, wants to make the Jazz Festival not only a community event, but also nationally recognized as being on par with the jazz festivals in Chicago and New Orleans. While I don’t know Baca personally, I like two things about him: 1) to use a baseball metaphor, he’s swinging for the fences, and 2) he’s going after his vision with a tenacious guerilla marketing approach. With Jazz in the Valley permeating the community for the past month, it’s been hard to leave the house without running into a jazz combo somewhere. My personal favorite was walking into Festival Foods for groceries and hearing live jazz coming from up in the balcony.

It’s easy to say that the university shouldn’t have to cold-canvass the community with such hardscrabble promotional strategies. Bunk. Take a page out of the jazz playbook. Great things don’t happen in isolation. Great things happen when different forces get together and see where the riff leads.

Usually, when the university reaches out into the community, it’s something at the public library. That’s a great start, but it’s preaching to the choir. Taking an art form to grocery stores hits people of all walks of life. 

Baca even brought his students to South Middle School for a promo. It’s always good to see the professors down in the trenches. Before uttering a single word to the auditorium of kids, he ripped a trumpet solo. Then he talked about the origins of jazz, but he didn’t err in the way so many guest speakers do ... trying to be cool or talking over the kids’ heads or talking down to them. He was informative, succinct, enthusiastic, and – best of all – he acted like jazz was so exciting it could speak for itself.

Next thing we knew, musicians marched in from the back, playing a New Orleans-style jazz funeral march. Once the band picked up the pace, Baca chided the audience for being too stiff, and he encouraged kids to move, sway, clap, and get into it. It worked. A teacher and a student even did the jitterbug in the aisle. The music was infectious, the players were hip, and the kids were hooked. As one student said afterwards, “That was awesome.”

If Baca’s vision pans out, Eau Claire could be known as a great jazz town, instead of a town-that-has-a-university-that-has-an-excellent-jazz-program. So I’m ready to take my relationship with jazz to the next level – I’m going to attend my first Jazz Festival. I’m not ready for a full-blown commitment ... I still want to listen to other kinds of music ... but maybe it’s time that jazz and I get a little more serious.