More than jazz makes the festival

City historian Paul Thomas reflects on past Elkhart Jazz Festivals.

Posted on June 19, 2013 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on June 19, 2013 at 1:57 p.m.

ELKHART — The Elkhart Jazz Festival has filled the air with music and restaurants with customers in downtown Elkhart for the past 25 years with its weekend of top-notch performers.

With returning artists and festival newcomers, Elkhart becomes a buzzing hub for jazz lovers old and young from all over the country.

“We are known from coast to coast, North to South, as a good festival to attend,” said Paul Thomas, Elkhart’s historian and owner of the Time Was Museum.

A member of the original board of the Elkhart Center that created the festival, Thomas knows what really makes it all come to life: volunteers.

“The jazz festival this year is made up of two chairmen and probably 200 volunteers, which will handle everything from stage managers and set-up people to door checkers and special needs golf cart drivers,” said Thomas.

Thomas, this year’s volunteer award honoree, will be one of those golf cart drivers, as he has been in recent years. Cruising through downtown Elkhart on his cart, Thomas has conversed with jazz lovers and legends.

“Taylor Eigsti was here,” said Thomas. “At the time he was 15 years old. He was a piano prodigy and he came here and was very well accepted. He wanted to go somewhere and I took him in my handicap cart. I asked him, ‘Now that you’ve become relatively famous, what do you want to do?’ He said, ‘When I get back to California, I’d like to get my driver’s license.’ I thought, ‘This guy’s famous and he doesn’t even have his driver’s license!’ I about drove into a pole.”

A witness to what goes on behind the scenes, Thomas has worked with all of the artists, Joan Collaso, Tim Cunningham, Dave Bennett and Bill Allred among his favorites.

“The jazz festival has always invited very well-known jazz artists,” said Thomas, flipping through one of his many collections of programs showcasing those that have taken the stage in past years.

Differing this year in that most shows will take place indoors, Thomas is glad that rain and heat will pose no threat to music fans or their attendance.

However, listing all of the differences between this year’s festival and those of the past would be too great a task.

“That’s like comparing a baby to a 90-year-old man like me,” said Thomas. “The festival has grown tremendously from what it was and we have many more artists.”

Meeting in October to prepare for the festival, some of that growth has included how much of Elkhart is involved, special events for patrons this year encompassing Wellfield Botanic Gardens and McCarthy’s on the Riverwalk. Ruthmere Mansion is also getting involved this year, with live music from VibeNation to be performed during its Coffee on the Piazza event.

While there have been missteps in the past, Thomas looks forward to this year’s festival, and feels confident in the men selected as chairmen.

“Three years ago, we had a fellow who wanted to change it to a jazz and blues event, and it was not successful,” said Thomas. “Naturally, you’re always going to find complaints, but I can’t think of one complaint that hasn’t been corrected. This year Dave Smith and Kurt Janowsky have been appointed as chairmen, and they have made a big difference in the formation of this year’s festival. Dave Smith is very knowledgable about jazz.”

With new leadership, a larger playing field and a song for everyone, this year’s event looks to be one of the biggest and most successful.

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