ELKHART — Every year of the Elkhart Jazz Festival, founders Van and Jean Ann Young have given top volunteers and sponsors awards for their service.
This year’s honorees include a Fest-favorite musician, the recipient of the inaugural Supporter Award and production crew co-chairs who asked to pass on their award to their hardworking staff.
“We’ve had a lot of very very fine volunteers, and that’s what we try to recognize with this honoree thing,” Van Young said. “A good musician, but a volunteer. The interested people. And this year for the first time, a supporter.”
The award winners will be recognized at a lifetime achievement awards ceremony, 2 p.m. Saturday in the Lerner Theater. Here’s a primer on each of the Van and Jean Ann Young Honoree Award winners.
Sandra and Dave Willis (Volunteer Award)
When Sandra and Dave Willis were told they had won the 2014 volunteer award, they didn’t want to accept it by themselves. Instead, they requested the honor go to the entire production crew, past and present.
“They were a little embarrassed, because they felt there’s so many people there that deserve praise in that production crew,” Young said.
Jazz Fest production is a family affair for the Willises. Now co-chairs of the festival production crew, they started as stage managers about 20 years ago.
Their relationship wit the Jazz Festival started when Dave and their daughter Rebecca, a clarinetist and pianist, had wanted to see jazz pianist and former NPR host Marian McPartland perform at the festival. They volunteered to work the stage for a different performance and afterward received a pass to McPartland’s session.
The next year Sandra and their son volunteered too, and the Willises have been working production since.
Over the years, they’ve built a second family with the Jazz Fest production crew.
By Sandra’s estimation, 21 core volunteers have put in a total 341 years.
“It has become a family because we’ve been together every year for so many years,” she said. “That’s why we don’t feel like only we should be honored.”
Production volunteers work behind the scenes to make sure musicians, visitors and vendors have what they need when they need it. They set up and tear down stages, moving equipment on and off in the half-hour transition between shows. They coordinate sound crews and drive golf cart shuttles between venues.
Sandra said some crew members take days off work every year to help set up Thursday before the festival and Friday during it. She and Dave are in charge of coordinating the volunteers and their tasks.
“I have a core group of people who know what they’re doing, so they stay on top of that stuff,” she said. “I have a person in the office that listens to the radio all day and night that sends people where they need to be that puts out fires. I have a couple ladies in the office that greet all the stage managers that come in and take care of all the office needs.”
It’s not all work, though. Crew members have running jokes together, such as an alien-shaped lawn ornament named Lars who makes the rounds of Jazz Fest with them and is featured in their Facebook photo albums. That’s one of her favorite Jazz Fest memories, she said.
“Those faces become familiar to you and become friends,” Sandra said.
The Willises plan to recognize the entire production crew, particularly five people who Sandra said work especially hard every year: Fawne and Tom Atkinson, Ann Linley, Will Menges and Carolyn Tasich.
“My job alone, coordinating and bringing all these pieces together and fitting everything into the weekend so the public sees a seamless performance and seamless festival and the musicians have everything they need at the stage and their equipment, that all happens because of that core group of people,” Sandra said. “Without that core of people, we couldn’t pull this off. It’s too big a job.”
Now 30 years old, Bennett started playing at the festival when he was 14 and traveled to Elkhart with the New Reformation Band. The band returned a handful of times, he said, and in 2008, he started performing regularly with his own group.
Bennett will receive the 2014 talent award. He was singled out not just for his musicianship, Jazz Fest founder Van Young said, but for his commitment to the festival.
“The crowd loves this kid and they follow him all over,” Young said. “He’s very deserving.”
Each of the other award winners mentioned Bennett as a prime example of the musician and volunteer community that builds around the Jazz Festival. Volunteer award co-winner Sandra Willis said Bennett is one of her favorite performers.
“Dave was younger when he started the festival, and he has not changed,” she said. “Just an excellent performer, down-to-earth, personable, friendly. And it’s not a show, that’s just Dave.”
Bennett fell in love with jazz at the age of 10, when his grandparents bought him a clarinet and a cassette tape featuring famous jazz clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman.
“The music was so infectious and from the heart and I wanted to do that,” he said.
Four years later, he was playing New Orleans jazz for a crowd in Elkhart.
Bennett still plays tributes to Goodman. He likes “Sing, Sing, Sing” for its clarinet and drum duet, which gives him room to play off-the-cuff.
“You can take it in areas that aren’t confined to jazz,” he said. “I might hear something I like in a certain pop or rock tune … and I can just throw it in there during a solo. Just enough difference to make the audience’s ears perk up.”
He said he felt honored to receive this year’s Talent Award.
“You really don’t expect things like that,” he said. “Kinda humbling, you know.”
This year, Bennett is playing with a new bassist and pianist. He said he’s excited to introduce them to Jazz Fest and see some familiar faces at the festival.
“The atmosphere and the people are probably some of the finest audiences we’ve ever come across,” Bennett said, adding it helps that Elkhart audiences are familiar with his group. “You feel at ease. You can go up there, be yourself, let it flow out.”
Jim Catalano (Industry Award)
Jim Catalano, winner of the 2014 Industry Award, is a long-time Jazz Fest volunteer as well as trade show manager at Conn-Selmer, Inc., which produces Ludwig Drums. Catalano has supplied drums for every venue at every Jazz Fest since the first festival in 1988.
“He has two loves,” Young said. “One is working for Ludwig, selling Ludwig drums, and the other is playing the drums. And he gets to do both at the festival.”
Though Young said Catalano should have been recognized earlier, Catalano, 60, said it was an honor to be recognized so young. He said he plans to work on the Jazz Fest for another 10 or 15 years at least, likely until he’s 75 years old.
“It’s kind of an honor for me to receive this award that has the name of the Youngs on it because he and I have worked together on this festival from the beginning,” Catalano said. “I just feel like I was going to do everything I could to help promote it to help keep it strong and keep it a viable Jazz Fest.”
Though he was on the planning committee for several years and still sometimes gives advice on talent selection, Catalano downplayed his role in the everyday workings of the festival.
“There’s a lot of heavy lifting done by other people, I’m not that guy that’s working on the festival stuff day in and day out,” he said. “My main role really is support of other people and helping with equipment.”
Catalano plays percussion for four bands in this year’s festival: as vibe player for VibeNation, drummer for Truth in Jazz and local big band Jazz Assemblage and percussionist for Elkhart Municipal band.
“I feel like I am one of the most blessed guys in the world because I am an active performing musician and I also work in the music industry,” he said.
Jazz Fest is a professional opportunity for him as well as a chance to perform, he said. Ludwig Drums often field-tests new drums at the festival.
“Some of the best performers get to play them,” he said. “If its good enough for them it’s good enough to market to the rest of the world.”
Ludwig Drums will donate drums for seven venues this year.
Not everyone loves jazz these days, Catalano said. It’s an older art form, an American art form, and it’s the festival’s mission to let jazz flourish.
“We need to keep it alive for the next generation,” he said. “The generation that were jazz fans ... Those people, let’s face it, they are leaving us. We have to promote this kind of music to keep it around for future generations.”
Young’s appreciation of Lawson and the Elkhart CVB goes back to the first days of the festival.
The Jazz Festival lost money for its first three years, Young said. Ticket sales weren’t supporting its costs, and the organizers had to depend on sponsors — such as the CVB — to keep the festival going.
“A lot of people fold up and blow away after they fail three years in a row, but we were very smart,” he said. “We never trusted ticket sales as the reason we wanted to continue going. We relied very heavily on sponsors.”
By the fourth year, the festival started making money. Young said it was the organizations and companies that sponsor the Jazz Fest that kept the festival afloat.
“We’ve had a couple of rough years, a few years ago, but again, the sponsors pulled us out,” Young said. “Elkhart is absolutely marvelous for backing something like this.”
“The Jazz Festival over a number of years has become the signature event for the City of Elkhart,” she said. “It really communicates the image of and the history of the music industry that was very strong here at one time, and the talent that we have in the community.”
Lawson was a jazz newbie when the festival started, but she said she sometimes thinks of Jazz Fest as a summer music education program. She grew into a jazz fan because of it.
“I am a huge fan of Aaron Neville and Dave Bennett and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band,” she said. “Even though I’ve never thought of myself as a jazz aficionado, I can tell you that that over the 27 years of this jazz festival I have learned to appreciate it.”
Lawson said she hopes new people get to experience the Jazz Festival this year as well as the regulars.
“Come and enjoy it,” she said. “This is downtown Elkhart’s time to shine.”