Annual Eau Claire Jazz Festival Swings to Virtual Platform

Jazz Crawl will be replaced by April 23 concert, ‘A Night with Local Legends’

Gary Johnson | UW-Eau Claire Integrated Marketing & Communications |

Photo via UW-Eau Claire IMC.
Photo via UW-Eau Claire Integrated Marketing and Communications.

After a one-year hiatus because of the pandemic, the Eau Claire Jazz Festival is back in 2021 with a virtual, live-streamed concert featuring Chippewa Valley talent and online music education clinics for middle and high school students.

The 55th Eau Claire Jazz Festival will take place on Friday, April 23. The event will feature live world-class entertainment originating virtually from Pablo Center at the Confluence in downtown Eau Claire.

With great tragedy comes great innovation.



“Because of COVID, with great tragedy comes great innovation,” says Robert Baca, artistic director for the Eau Claire Jazz Festival and director of jazz studies at UW-Eau Claire.

Among those innovations organizers developed is replacing the popular downtown Jazz Crawl — formerly 52nd Street — with an online concert featuring Eau Claire musicians at 7:30 p.m. April 23.

“A Night with Local Legends presented by Royal Credit Union” features the following musicians, who will be backed up by Grammy-nominated UW-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble I:

  • Sean Carey, a percussionist and member of Grammy Award-winning Bon Iver. He is a 2008 music and applied instrumental graduate of UW-Eau Claire.
  • Sue Orfield, a saxophonist who has played with musical greats like Bo Diddley and Dizzy Gillespie.
  • Josh Gallagher, a pianist who studied under the legendary Dave Brubeck.
  • Jeremy Boettcher, a bassist who recently performed with Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha and Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai. He is a 2006 music education and applied instrumental graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

“Our town is fast gaining a reputation of famous people who travel the world with their talents, but choose to live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” Baca says. “Now they will be featured on a stage in an event that is popular inside and outside of our town with larger orchestration and original compositions in our world-class Pablo Center.”

More than 5,000 middle and high school students, parents and chaperones ordinarily would be on campus for in-person learning sessions with jazz professionals as part of Eau Claire Jazz Festival.

This year, bands can submit recordings that will be judged by renowned adjudicators over Zoom. Organizers also have developed more than 25 practical virtual clinics that are prerecorded and can be accessed at any place and time by band programs for use with their students.

“Students will have the opportunity to learn – albeit virtually – from phenomenal jazz educators, demonstrating their creativity and taking their craft to new heights,” says Patrick Hull, president of Eau Claire Jazz Inc., who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from UW-Eau Claire in 1994 and 1997, respectively.

UW-Eau Claire junior John Francis, a business administration major from Chippewa Falls, is student co-director of the festival. He is working with adjudicators and clinicians, as well as with schools on their recording submissions.

Francis knows the in-person nature of the Eau Claire Jazz Festival is special, but says the virtual option has its benefits because patrons will not have transportation and lodging costs as obstacles.

“By being able to reach people from all over the world, we can show them a snippet of what the festival truly encompasses without them having to leave their homes,” Francis says. “It lets us reach a whole different audience – one that may not have been able to attend the festival in the first place due to the cost of everything involved. We hope those individuals will enjoy the online version this year and want to come see what it is like in person next spring.”

Student co-director Anna Loughridge, an organizational communication major with a music minor, says students have been learning and growing at the Eau Claire Jazz Fest for decades and that experience will continue this year.

“Even virtual, this year is packed with opportunities and resources to grow,” says Loughridge, who is a junior from Rosemount, Minnesota. “Our team has paired a world-class roster of adjudicators and clinicians along with some of the most inspiring jazz icons to create an exceptional and inspiring experience for students.”

COVID-19 canceled the April 2020 festival, the longest-running student-operated jazz fest in the country because of health concerns and restrictions on public gatherings last April. The first festival was held in 1967.

The decision to cancel last year was difficult because the event is such a positive annual collaboration between the university and community, Baca says.

“We felt that we were letting those counting on our event down,” Baca says. “All understood, as our health concerns took precedent for all of us, but we have come to appreciate the positive value our event gives to so many people here.”

Hull is hopeful the community will embrace the virtual format of the Friday night concert.

“We can’t let life pass us by,” Hull says. “This is why Eau Claire Jazz Inc. has devoted so much effort to getting this right — the right musicians, the right venue, the right combination of musical styles. We set the stage for a great evening of boundless creativity, musical passion and excitement.

“Everyone needs a little boost from time to time, and this concert holds the potential to give us back that little piece of humanity we’ve been craving. As a community, all we have to do is engage.”

Tickets for the concert are $10 per household and can be purchased online.

More information is available for the event.