“Just magical:” Elkhart Jazz Festival will mark 25 years of music and memory making
Posted: 06/17/2012 at 1:15 am
By: Tim Vandenack
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A band plays during the 1991 Elkhart Jazz Festival at one of the most popular session stages — poolside at the Midway Motor Lodge — where evening sessions were a highlight of the festival.
Truth File Photo
Crowds on the Civic Plaza had a different view of the U.S. Air Force Airmen of Note during the opening of the 1990 Elkhart Jazz Festival. In later years, the plaza stage was on Main Street at High Street with chairs lined up on Main. In the rear is the Midway Motor Lodge, for many years the site of four EJF stages.
Truth File Photo By Larry Tebo
Red Holloway and his sax take a solo turn during this 1996 Elkhart Jazz Festival Saturday evening session poolside at the Midway Motor Lodge. It was the last year for performances in the hotel. In the group are drummer Butch Miles and brass man Bobby Lewis who will be playing at this yearís EJF. (Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen)
ELKHART — Credit the musicians who come year to year.
Credit the fans — some from Elkhart, some from further flung places like California and New York — who come to hear the music.
Credit the volunteers who put in the time to make sure the Elkhart Jazz Festival runs like clockwork.
However you cut it — and they all play vital roles — the Jazz Festival has soldiered on. It’s had its ups and downs, but it’s survived and thrived. And when the first notes for this year’s installment sound on Friday it’ll mark a milestone — 25 years as an Elkhart institution.
“It’s a miracle,” said Van Young, a local jazz aficionado who’s helped recruit talent for the Elkhart Festival over the years. Sure there are jazz festivals that have gone on 50, 60 years — many others fold after only a few — “but I can count on my one hand the number that have gone 20 years.”
Phil Miller, chairman of the first three Jazz Festivals in 1988, 1989 and 1990, called the longevity “a real testament” to the fact that Elkhart has truly embraced the annual event.
Look at the figures and they underscore the success. The number of attendees at the three-day Jazz Festival has jumped, from 3,000 in 1988 to an expected 25,000 this year. More performers come, from 67 in 1988 to more than 100 this year.
Insiders offer many reasons for the success, for reaching the 25th anniversary mark:
• The varied jazz styles now represented at the festival, originally focused on traditional jazz, appeal to a broad cross-section of people. “That’s what’s made it last, the fact that it’s eclectic,” said Young.
• The local community has always rallied around the event, attending and, equally important, volunteering to help run the festival. “We hoped it would last, and it’s been successful for one big reason — it’s strictly a volunteer situation,” said Paul Thomas, a long-time Jazz Festival volunteer and local historian.
• The festival has a serendipitous quality, making for special moments — whether because of the musical performances or the friends you stumble into while attending. “The thing about it is, it’s just magical,” said Diana Lawson, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau, a sponsor. “Every single year it’s not a repeat of the year before.”
The relatively small size of the festival here, added Miller, lends itself to intimacy between musicians and listeners, who sometimes are only 10 feet or so apart. “There’s that feeling of camaraderie and being part of the music-creating process,” he said.
Ticket sales for this year are up nearly 30 percent over last year at this time. Tim Shelly, chairman of the Jazz Festival this year and an Elkhart lawyer, credits buzz with the 25th anniversary and a slightly improved economy.
‘A MAJOR JAZZ VENUE’
Downtown Elkhart Inc., the non-profit group previously known as Elkhart Centre Inc. that was formed to promote activity and development in the city center, produces and organizes the Jazz Festival.
The event’s development began in earnest in 1987. That’s when a group of civic leaders — spurred by Young and the late Bill Miller, Phil Miller’s father and operator of the old Elco Theater — formed a special committee to look into the idea of some sort of music festival, settling on jazz.
The committee was “as free-form, spontaneous and exciting as a jazz jam session itself,” notes the program for the first Jazz Festival, held July 8-10, 1988, including patrons-only activities.
Broadly, the idea was to launch an event to lure people to the downtown area and create buzz. Even back then, the hope was to create an event that would stand the test of time. The 1988 program notes that the organizers hoped “to put Elkhart on the map as a major jazz venue.”
A festival centered around jazz, of all things, was a natural fit given Elkhart’s history as a manufacturing center for band instruments, even though many of those companies have since departed.
“It’s a music town, we make instruments here,” said Young, a long-time English instructor at Elkhart Central High School, among other facilities, but now retired.
A FEW LUMPS
Over the years the Jazz Festival — reliant on ticket sales, corporate support and money from the city of Elkhart for funding — has experienced it’s share of lumps.
Rainfall, at times, has hampered the event, keeping ticket sales in check. A storm during the 1997 Jazz Festival, for instance, wreaked havoc.
But even then, the beat went on. The rain caused flooding in one of the tents put up to house performances that year, but the audience and musicians stayed put, according to an article in the June 22, 1997, Elkhart Truth.
“According to reports, the announcement that the tent would close early due to the storm was met with boos,” said the article.
More recently, in 2010, the Jazz Festival was scaled back to two days and blues music was added to the lineup, a measure meant to broaden its appeal. Those changes — the brainchild of the Downtown Elkhart Inc. director of the time, now gone, and reversed in 2011 — are widely regarded with derision today.
The tighter schedule and addition of blues “turned off a lot of people,” said Glenn Holtz, the Jazz Festival chairman for many years.
LOTS OF MEMORIES
Mainly, though, the Jazz Festival generates enthusiasm and fond memories.
There are long-time favorites who have come over and over again to perform, like Bucky Pizzarelli, Joan Collaso, the Four Freshmen, the service bands. “I just see a blur of really good performers and it’s hard to point to any single one,” said Young.
There are the unexpected surprises, like the time some of the members of Count Basie’s Big Band, after the group’s formal performance, held an impromptu jam session at the old Midway Motel, the Jazz Festival headquarters for many years.
“They just had a blast,” said Young. “We had a good time.”
There are the out-of-towners who travel to Elkhart each year from all over the United States to take in the event. As a volunteer, Thomas has met many of them and looks forward to seeing the regulars when they come back.
“Made a lot of friends,” said Thomas. “See ‘em once a year, yep.”
For Lawson, it’s the spirit of the event, the good feeling of listening to the music and seeing friends.
“It just feels good. It just feels like a nice, intimate event that is fun,” she said. “It fits in so well with what Elkhart is.”
A JAZZ FESTIVAL HISTORY
• April 1987: A committee of Elkhart leaders is formed to investigate the idea of a music festival in Elkhart to promote the downtown area. They decide on a jazz fest.
• July 8-10, 1988: The inaugural Elkhart Jazz Festival is held. Patrons-only activities are held the first day, with public events held the second and third days.
• June 21-23, 1996: The Jazz Festival is centered for the last time at the old Quality Hotel in the downtown area, since torn down. The hotel, previously called the Midway Motel, had served as the focal point of the Jazz Festival since its inception.
• June 20-22, 1997: The Jazz Festival marks its 10th anniversary. Torrential rains impact the Friday show.
• June 25-26, 2010: The event, newly dubbed the Elkhart Jazz and Blues Festival, is cut from three days to two and blues music is added to the lineup in a bid to broaden its appeal. The changes, reversed the next year and now panned, are part of a strategy to increase the number of jazz events in Elkhart throughout the year rather than focusing on one yearly blowout.
• June 24-26 , 2011: The newly revamped Lerner Theatre in the city center becomes the Elkhart Jazz Festival focal point.
• June 22-24, 2012: The Jazz Festival marks its 25th anniversary.