Can’t Stop the Music
for 50 years, the Eau Claire Jazz Festival has attracted and inspired top musical talent
Teaching at what was then known as the Wisconsin State College-Eau Claire, professor Joe Casey hosted the first Eau Claire Jazz Festival. Five decades and hundreds of performances later, it is still going strong.
“That first festival only had three college bands,” says former UW-Eau Claire music professor Ron Keezer. “It was Eau Claire, La Crosse, and River Falls.”
Keezer, who taught in UWEC’s music department from 1969 to 2001, has seen the festival’s growth firsthand. Now boasting well over 120 bands in total, it has become one of the longest running and biggest music events in the area. From hometown acts, such as Sue Orfield, to bands from across the state and region, the festival’s influence continues to increase.
While the ever-expanding slate of bands is impressive, it’s the high level of talent that really draws a crowd. Over the years the festival has brought dozens of world-class jazz acts to Eau Claire.
“We’ve had some great ones,” says Keezer, “but Clark Terry had to have been one of the best.” A featured guest artist at the 1970 festival, Terry was an internationally acclaimed trumpeter by the time he graced the Eau Claire stage. Over a seven-decade career he toured with some of the great titans of jazz, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones.
Keezer says another guest artist who stood out was trumpeter Snooky Young. “Young was outstanding,” Keezer says. “He played with so many different bands over the years; he was like an encyclopedia!”
While the festival has hosted its share of greats over the years, this year’s fest, which runs April 22-23, will be one to remember. Saxophonist Jimmy Heath, vocalist Connie Evingson, and vibraphone player Stefon Harris will each take the stage as part of the festival’s headline concerts at the Memorial High School auditorium. Heath and Evingson will perform at the Friday, April 22, headline show while Heath will return with Harris for the second headline show on Saturday, April 23.
The headline concerts are high points for the festival. The two performances offer a chance for locals to see seasoned performers on stage with UWEC’s twice Grammy-nominated Jazz Ensemble I.
Jimmy “Little Bird” Heath, a noted saxophonist who has performed with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, will be a particular treat for longtime jazz fans. He has visited Eau Claire in the past, and even remembers when jazz was played live at The Joynt on Water Street. Heath will celebrate his 90th birthday this fall.
“To welcome Jimmy back to the area is such a treat,” Keezer says. “It is amazing that he is able to continue to play at such a high level.”
Jazz festival aside, Keezer has had an outsized impact on music in the area in several other ways, including through his son Geoffrey, now a world-renowned touring pianist.
“When Geoffrey was 6, my wife and I hosted a luncheon for the festival clinicians, and Charles Suber, publisher and editor of Downbeat Magazine, was there,” Keezer says. “Geoffrey came out and played a tape of his compositions, and Charles was so impressed he did a big piece on this 6-year-old pianist in Eau Claire.”
Today Geoffrey Keezer tours internationally with the likes of Chris Botti and Sting. He has returned to headline several Eau Claire Jazz Festivals in the past, and came back again in March for an intimate performance with acclaimed vocalist Gillian Margot at a private residence.
“To have two artists like Geoffrey and Gillian perform in Eau Claire speaks volumes about the growth of jazz appreciation in Eau Claire,” says Erin Trowbridge, president of Eau Claire Jazz Inc., the nonprofit group that oversees the festival. “When talent like that chooses to perform here, it is a testament to the progress our community is making in supporting the arts.”
Any conversation about jazz in Eau Claire would be incomplete without Bob Baca, another longtime professor of music at UW-Eau Claire and a onetime colleague of Ron Keezer. This year, Baca – an incredibly accomplished musician in his own right – will be a part of his 30th Eau Claire Jazz Festival, now as its creative director. Under Baca’s direction everything from headliner bookings to the two-day high school band competition is planned and executed year-in and year-out.
“The debt we all owe Bob for his continuous work on promoting jazz in Eau Claire cannot be overstated,” says Eau Claire Jazz Inc. board member and former president Mark Blaskey. “Bob has consistently put the students and the community first, and the results speak for themselves.”
One of the festival’s biggest hits, a jazz takeover of downtown’s Barstow Street known as “52nd Street,” was Baca’s brainchild. The event is a throwback to the days when New York City’s 52nd Street was the hottest spot in the jazz world. In those days, famous musicians would jump from club to club performing jazz sets late into the night.
Today, 52nd Street in Eau Claire brings that same intensity to Barstow Street as 14 bars and venues convert into jazz clubs for a single night.
“For many local jazz fans, 52nd Street is their favorite part of the festival,” says John Genskow, Eau Claire Jazz Inc. board member and director of 52nd Street. “It is a fantastic way to grab a drink, see friends, and enjoy some of the best jazz you’ll see in Eau Claire all year.”
This year’s festival will also include the unveiling of a scholarship for UWEC jazz students. Created in partnership with the UWEC Foundation, the scholarship will be a self-sustaining endowed fund. Eau Claire Jazz Inc. has already established the fund, and the group is looking forward to using profits from the festival this spring and from Gatsby’s Gala in the fall to help fund the endowment. Private donations are also welcome.
With so much going on during each festival, it can be easy to lose sight of the larger picture: that students with a passion for music are finding stages in a community that loves to hear them play.
“Over the years, the festival has been such a tremendous thing for our community, the university, and – most importantly – the students who perform,” Keezer says. “For such a modest-sized town, the Eau Claire Jazz Festival is at the center of quite the renaissance in jazz appreciation.”
For details on the 2016 Eau Claire Jazz Festival, visit eauclairejazz.com.